Headliners from this past weekend’s Gasparilla Music Festival in Downtown Tampa, Ra Ra Riot is one of those extremely talented indie rock bands poised for greatness in the spirit of Arcade Fire and The National before them.
Ra Ra Riot wouldn’t be the band it is without the dynamite string section of violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn, who know how to bathe even the briskest songs (“Boy,” et al) in a wash of melancholy. Wes Miles’ vocals may exude a sort of innocent calm, but his backing players (who also include bassist Mathieu Santos and guitarist Milo Bonacci) are experts at ramping up the tension, too. The result is a record that feels both big and personal — just the right recipe for a band looking to jump to arenas in the months and years to come.
Being friends with Vampire Weekend would’ve helped any band in 2008, but it was particularly beneficial to Ra Ra Riot and their relentlessly charming debut, The Rhumb Line, whose college rock came in similarly preppy tailoring. Plenty of this genre’s practitioners have attended ritzy private schools, but these two bands sounded like it: melodically nimble and compact songs bedecked with chamber-pop sweetener and nods to 1980s art-rock. Of course, Ra Ra Riot never faced the same accusations of cultural appropriation or privilege (maybe because Syracuse isn’t in the Ivy League?), but oddly enough, their detractors denounced them as even less edgy and more buttoned-up. Perhaps The Orchard is a reaction to that criticism; it pushes their stylistic range at the cost of hooks.
Prior to its release, Ra Ra Riot described their sophomore release The Orchard a “so poppy you will want to throw up on yourself.” Following the indie-pop gem that was The Rhumb Line, this was a bold statement. It proved to be an incorrect one. Instead, they crafted an album that was more nuanced, less concise and a sound that is far less immediate. The band lost a little something in their transition between albums, but crafted a record that gets better every listen.
It seems a disservice, as it often is with sophomore releases, to compare The Orchard to The Rhumb Line, one of the best and most underrated albums released in recent memory. However, it is almost impossible not to, as The Orchard starts where The Rhumb Line left off, albeit with a few tweaks.
The greatest change occurs in the role vocals play in each song. Ra Ra Riot’s greatest strength is their string arrangements; it’s the most sonically dynamic element and what really separates the band from anyone else making similar music today. On The Rhumb Line lead singer Wes Miles wielded his quavering tenor expertly, almost as another instrument in the mix. Here, the band seeks to bring the vocals to the forefront, allowing Miles a greater freedom and where the instrumentals create a backdrop rather than the essence of the song itself. The songs of The Orchard are more spacious, loose and ultimately lack the impact many Rhumb Line tracks were characterized by.
However, the technique does yield some unexpected results. Although Miles does not have the voice to carry songs on his own, he does have a penchant for complex and often melancholic melodies. Overall, The Orchard carries a very bittersweet tone, and the vocals on the tracks “The Orchard” and “Keep It Quiet,” where Miles is singing almost unaccompanied ingratiate themselves in the mind, to the point where it is often hard not to sing along with his constantly changing tones.
Ironically, the song where the vocal prominence and pensive melody achieve greatest results is the only track on the album Miles does not sing on. On “You And I Know” cellist Alexandra Lawn takes over lead vocal duties to create a stunningly beautiful song. It’s the standout of the album, and not just because I’ve had a huge crush on Ms. Lawn for a few years now. She’s the unflinching center of the swelling guitar and bass, dynamic piano lines and a fantastic job of backup vocals by Miles. Coming in the middle of the album, it’s an unexpected and dramatic shift from the rest of the album, and works as a centerpiece to the record.
Another standout track from the outset is “Boy,” The Orchard’s lead single. The song typifies an effort to recapture their blissfully catchy and powerful sound from The Rhumb Line, and succeeds extremely well. The star of this track is undoubtedly the bass line cooked up by Mathieu Santos, both catchy and complex.
The lowest point of the album comes not soon after in the form of “Massachussetts.” Ra Ra Riot has been plagued since they began to break onto the indie scene by comparisons to contemporaries Vampire Weekend. Here they seem to play right into the comparisons, with Miles channeling his inner Ezra Koenig. The result is honestly comparable to something you’d imagine was left on the cutting room floor of VW’s debut album, not that they would record something as uninspired as this. The elements are all puzzlingly there; somewhat off-kilter drumming with the inclusion of unusual fills and cowbells, a melodically chanted chorus, and a reference to the Northeast of America.
As it will with this band, it will always come back to the strings for Ra Ra Riot. The songs that are consistently good on this album are the ones that Rebecca Zeller and Lawn have the greatest roles in. “Shadowcasting” and “Kansai” both keep momentum going through the second of the album and raise the album far above the “hit-and-miss” designation the first half would have you believe it was. An almost perfect representation of this comes in the form of “Too Dramatic.” From the beginning the track is characterized by frenzied bursts of very staccato violin and cello parts and Miles’ almost unbelievably clear and very impressive high vocal range. However, as the song progresses and musically changes from verse to verse they eventually drop the strings altogether and replace them with somewhat cheesy 80’s-style synths, an effect that sounds fun on first listen but ultimately ends up being somewhat gimmicky and detracting from the overall song.
In the end, The Orchard is a mixed bag. It’s a more mature Ra Ra Riot we are listening to. The songs often take their time to develop, and stick with you. There are missteps along the way, but there is a lot to look forward to in the future. It’s something entirely different than pop, even if that is what they set out to make here. Although it’s still easy to take in, there’s almost always something underneath the surface.
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