Yo La Tengo was formed in 1984 by Mr. Kaplan (vocals and guitar) and Ms. Hubley (drums and vocals), who are married, and since 1992 its third member has been James McNew on bass. The band long ago became a quiet model for sustainable indie rock. Yo La Tengo has found a loyal audience, a steadfast label and considerable respect among fellow musicians. It has recorded an extensive catalog — “There’s a Riot Going On” is its 15th studio album — and it continues to play what it wants, from thoughtful 1960s-flavored pop-rock to extended feedback freakouts.
The band’s general canon, defined through its own songs and countless cover versions, is clear and broad: the 1960s of the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the British Invasion and psychedelia; the 1970s of Los Angeles folk-pop, krautrock and punk; the 1980s of new wave, post-punk and indie rock, not to mention select Top 10 pop from every era.
That’s roomy enough for ample variety. But any stable, long-running band has to battle staleness, and for this album, Yo La Tengo transformed its recording methods. “There’s a Riot Going On” is the band’s first digitally recorded album, allowing it to use an unlimited number of tracks. It was made in the band’s rehearsal studio with no outside producer, allowing each song to be built in leisurely layers. John McEntire, of Tortoise, eventually mixed the results.
The album often dissolves the guitar-bass-drums core of typical Yo La Tengo songs. It’s awash in loops and effects, in sustained shimmering tones and percussion overdubs; in the opening track, “You Are Here,” a long drone acclimates a listener to its sense of suspended time. There are echoes of late-1960s studio extravaganzas like the Rolling Stones’s “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” Tim Buckley’s “Goodbye and Hello” and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” (The album’s closest approaches to lilting pop tunes, “Shades of Blue” and “Let’s Do It Wrong,” are overt homages to the mid-1960s Beach Boys.)
But the album’s tone is far more subdued than its psychedelic forebears, and Mr. Kaplan and Ms. Hubley, who have always been diffident singers, are even more self-effacing than usual, almost as if they wanted to hide among the instruments.
They deliver their apprehensions as gently as they can, turning reckonings into reveries. In “She May She Might,” Mr. Kaplan sings about a woman who wishes she could “get outside her mind” or simply run away, in a tangle of unresolved modal harmonies. In “Dream Dream Away,” it takes nearly three minutes of contemplative, slowly strummed guitar and abstract reverberation before Mr. Kaplan muses, in choirlike vocal harmonies, “Why cry? Why try? It’s all the same.”
The album ends with “Here You Are,” a cozy, floating, gradually gathering vamp that enfolds a grim summation: “We’re out of time/Believe the worst.” Yo La Tengo knows all too well how fragile its musical refuge is, and how temporary.