Superbloom mostly feels like a band spinning its wheels, waiting to work out what’s next. But a couple of experiments they try may offer guidance.
Ra Ra Riot is a band in search of a path forward. When they moved on from their baroque roots, subsequent albums dived further into the indie pop pool, adding more synths and textures to their uplifting, sweeping core. But now on album number five, the ground they’re standing on feels less fertile. Although there are still some good songs, Superbloom mostly feels like a band spinning its wheels, waiting to work out what’s next. But a couple of experiments they try may offer guidance.
Granted, when Ra Ra Riot latches onto a great melody, they use it to craft some undeniable earworms. “Flowers” has the charm of the band’s best work, dressed up in an electro-funk stomp. It elevates on the back of a brisk guitar rhythm, with touches of synths and violin fading in and out. All these elements create a crowded but smooth-moving machine. “Belladonna” is probably one of the poppiest tunes the group has done to date, with a watery synth melody that hits with a warm familiarity. Sure, there are plenty of expected “whoas” and a jump-for-joy chorus. But elements like Rebecca Zeller’s expressive violin playing keep the track in their voice.
Speaking of voice, let’s talk about Wes Miles. The seemingly-ageless vocals of Ra Ra Riot’s singer make up the soul of the band’s music. All you need to do is listen to the fantastic “Bad to Worse” to be caught up in its gentle power. The single shines with an excellent, luminous keyboard hook. Miles’ voice ascends to his exceptional falsetto for a singalong chorus, but he adds some sour to the sweetness, with lyrics about an unhealthy relationship. “War & Famine” is just as effective. Ambient strings flutter over a bed of synths, putting the focus on Miles’ falsetto. Rather than sing in frustration over the failures of those in charge, Miles imbues each note with a familiar weariness.
Unfortunately, very little else on Superbloom matches those early tracks. Starting with “Bitter Conversation,” it feels like the record falls off a cliff, with catchy melodies nowhere to be found. That song initially sounds like a ‘70s disco throwback. But rather giving a cool guitar riff, funky bass line or symphony of brass, the band just spits out bursts of synths. It’s like they wanted to write their own Random Access Memories tune, but missed Daft Punk’s most appealing elements. “This Time of Year” and “Gimme Time” run into the same issue, with not enough in place to grab your attention. The former sounds like a lame version of “Happy,” with feeble synth blips. The latter is such generic, unmemorable pop, it might as well be invisible.
Even a song with potential, like “An Accident,” is let down by the band’s arrangements. The real accident here is masking a lovely acoustic guitar melody in mountains of droning synths. Ra Ra Riot should have stripped this tune way back, to just a guitar, some violin and Miles’ gentle, soul-searching voice. Instead, the best parts are buried in the commotion.
However, there are two songs on Superbloom that stand out for just how left-field they sound compared to everything else. “Endless Pain/Endless Joy” might be the strangest song Ra Ra Riot have ever released. Driven by pounding drums and jumpy bass-and-synth lines, the track lets Miles go wild. He sings in an odd, drawn-out pattern, stretching syllables past the point of comfort. Then, the chorus devolves into cacophony with freaked-out guitar chords and a ragged shout from Miles. “A Check for Daniel” sounds like the group’s take on Devo, with a propulsive, motorized rhythm slamming up against a superb arpeggio guitar riff.
While making indie pop has worked out well for the band so far, you can feel the well start to dry on Superbloom. But when the band decides to mess around, it’s some of the most thrilling, refreshing work they’ve ever done. Let’s hope that going forward, they let go of restraint and embrace the weird.