Ra Ra Riot
Label: Barsuk Records
As easy as it would be to knock Ra Ra Riot for being a collection of mildly derivative, music video-friendly, college radio-darling New Yorkers, the sextet holds a certain quality that makes them nearly impossible to direct ire toward. Maybe it’s their “go get ’em” rise out of the trappings of a college band, maybe it was the hardships they’ve had to endure along the way or maybe it’s just the fact that they seem like a genuinely good group of guys and gals. In the two years since their debut album, The Rhumb Line, was released, things haven’t changed much, and the same predictable criticism and faint praise can be lobbed at its follow-up, The Orchard. So without further ado, here’s another healthy dose of that.
The Orchard makes the mistake of opening with its most original and interesting section with some clever interplay between bass and strings, creeping in and out of the shadow of Wes Miles’ vocals. The expected kick-in of a full band never comes, making for a lead-off song that stands out for its arrangement and discipline but not from anywhere near a songwriting standpoint. That comes in “Boy,” and so begins the challenge of not over-analyzing the music of Ra Ra Riot. It’s fun, slightly dramatic indie-pop with all of the expected musical ingredients and longing and without any more than a handful of minor surprises. Making comparisons to their friends in Vampire Weekend is too easy after hearing Miles’ vocal style, the staccato guitar jangles, frenetic drumming and the ever-present blazing of violins within the song structures will inevitably make for some Arcade Fire quips. But the influence never takes over to an embarrassing degree, leaving the comparisons simply as inescapable reference points in the 2010 indie-pop landscape.
When Miles reaches for (and nails) the falsetto of “You’re too dramatic/ I don’t understand it” over the thump-thump kick drum in “Too Dramatic,” and sings, “There was a light/ But I don’t care/ We both know that it’s foolish” over some serious yacht-rock e-piano chords, we’re reminded that is likely not Ra Ra Riot’s intention to impress those looking for the hippest fringe shit. And though the self-inflected genre parody remains mainly harmless, there are a few themes that may elicit some smug winces: the Koenig-esque “it don’t matter”s at the beginning of the catchy but epically aimless “Massachusetts,” failed echoing guitar stabs of “Shadowcasting,” and the band’s overall resistance to throwing in any sort of chord or melody that doesn’t sound like honey. One of the subtle highlights comes when Alexandra Lawn, giving Miles a chance to ruminate elsewhere for a bit, valiantly does her best Stevie Nicks on “You and I Know.”Her voice is cool, casual and underutilized here – although the easy Arcade Fire references would probably just be made easier if she were to swoop in on the harmonies more often. (The apparent Fleetwood Mac inside joke is continued with less success on “Shadowcasting.”) A late-album pro in a side bubbling with cons, “Kansai” gives the strings some room to breathe and the band as a whole a chance to sound more natural and relaxed than anywhere else on the album.
So besides the obvious style-sharing going on here, the fatherly, politically correct thing to say here would be that Ra Ra Riot succeed in making the type of music that they obviously care about, or the always meaningless “it’s good for what they were trying to do.” But digging deeper, it’s frustrating when a band that’s so reliable at making music that simply sounds “good” is afraid to mess with the formula – not just their formula, but the same bag of tricks that their peers so often dig into – because however pretty, paved and pleasant the road they’re coasting on now is, they’re still just coasting.
by Kyle Wall
Key Tracks: The Orchard