Ra Ra Riot is an indie pop band formed in 2006 at Syracuse University which has enjoyed considerable touring success including a performance at SXSW and who’s sophomore record The Orchard was critically and commercially successful being nominated for best album under the Pop/Rock Album category of the 10th annual Independent Music Awards eventually losing to shoe.’s Speed of Life, because yeah that makes sense… harumph. The band has undergone some changes in the past year, namely losing their cellist and founding member Alexandra Lawn and thus changing their artistic focus from straight ahead baroque pop to synth-pop. The resulting aptly digitally titled record Beta Love is a more ambitious record than previous efforts which excels in strong, catchy vocals and overall production but is a step back in song structure, direction and overall impact.
Immediately, the strength of the record is heard in the strong hooks penned by Wes Miles and sung with alternation between natural and falsetto voice which sounds more similar to Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors than the band’s previous records. The album works as a dance record at times but suffers too many times from some energy sapping groove ballads to be allowed to roll on straight through for this purpose. First, touching on the plentiful differences in sound from their previous releases. Strings have been replaced almost entirely by synth, which isn’t too terrible of a switch, though the emotive delivery of the dueting violin and cello is missed. There are no apparent female vocals on this record which is a letdown, frankly. The percussion is less straight-ahead and works to the advantage of the new synth-pop sound. The quieter moments of this record aren’t moments contained within songs, but entire tracks. And these tracks are among the weaker on this record; they lack the energetic positivity that the stronger tracks exude and don’t have enough emotional gusto behind them to keep the listener engaged.
Ra Ra Riot’s “Beta Love”
The strongest moments on this album are all contained within the higher energy tracks usually involving a great hook with ever-climbing synth that propels the standard instrumentation forward. The motifs of tremolo picked guitar and bass with bass drum heavy percussion works well on this record and is less indie, more pop build-up. These builds are aided by strong production that cleans up the rhythm section and gives it that dance quality. Take the song “Beta Love” for instance. There’s an amazing build in the chorus, with high flying falsetto, staccato keys and a thumping bass kick that aids the fist pumping lyrics. Or perhaps “For Once” with its bouncy bass line, shimmering guitar tone, and a violin melody with this sharp sounding sixteenth note ascending slide that really brings it all together. There is a dynamism to the band’s choruses which is undeniable, and it’s in the choruses where the band sounds like a band properly maneuvering in their 3rd LP of pop music, crafting immediate tunes that stick with you beyond the first listen. And with a total playtime of only 30 minutes, Ra Ra Riot seems fully aware that their pop listening demographic is hoping for fast, immediate, catchy tunes that can be played over and over for the gratification of the hook addiction.
Where the record falters is in the linear flow of the tracks, or lack thereof, in the second half of the album. There are tunes that reach for too much and basically don’t sound authentic to the band’s personality. The over-wobbly bass lines, distant vocals, and intermittent descending synth line make “What I Do For U” sound like a misplaced Kanye B-side. Similarly, “Wilderness” sounds like an adult contemporary soft rock band making a tribute to James Blake for the Grooves music channel. One can’t fault the band for being more adventurous in the song structure and tone, but some songs seem premature in their development and could have benefited from more trial and error in a live setting to see what movements build up the crowd’s. Perhaps some more ambitious instrumental jams, which this band is definitely capable of, would help to smooth the flow of the second half, however this would run contrary to the short catchy pop appeal. With the exception of the bitchin’ guitar/synth solo in the interestingly Hall and Oates inspired sound of “That Much,” there are few gratifying instrumental breaks. And notwithstanding “That Much,” the record is very front loaded. One can’t help but wonder if the band worried about the tracks in the second half themselves?
Ultimately this record shows a lot of promise for a band reaching in a new direction. Their previous records could suffer from “middle-of-the-roadness” with strong but very modest instrumentation and straight ahead baroque pop writing. In this record it would appear they’ve shaken off their old creative process and are reaching for a little more spice, a move which will bear great fruit as they grow into it. The vocals are stronger than before, the drums are more varied, and the risk taking is satisfying if bewildering sometimes. If Ra Ra Riot can more expertly work in their new synth melodies and more courageous song structuring into a more cohesive record, they could be leading the pack in the indie pop scene in a little while here. And frankly, they would deserve to be top of the heap if they could more consistently hit moments like the best found on this record. At least they gave themselves a fighting chance with the move to the more universally appreciated contemporary form of synth-pop. Wouldn’t want to lose out to shoe. again by sticking with the consistently under-appreciated baroque pop form.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl | Contributor
To pre-order/order this album on iTunes just click here!