Well hey there, music world & all who inhabit it. Long time no see.
So I realize it’s been a long time since I last posted. Like, a LONG time. Like, if I had waited any longer I might have been rumored as a potential guest artist on Detox. You know, the old old new old new old new new old new album by Dr. Dre.
Not that I’d given this blog up for dead, because I hadn’t– it was always there in the back of my mind, sitting stagnant & scummed over by layers of Real Life Things. I meant to get back to it, honest. Just got sidetracked by stuff. Stuff like, uh, dropping out of college,
wasting time building my personal brand on Twitter, and capping off an even better week-long SXSW adventure than last year’s. The important stuff, y’know? Totally understandable. (On a completely unrelated note: wow, I just realized how dumb of a word “stuff” is.)
Anyway, forget all that. As far as anyone else is concerned, I just took a much-needed extended hiatus.
But now I’m back, fresher-than-evah, and it’s time to review some music, baby.
Ra Ra Riot. Beta Love. New album.
The landscape of modern music is an enigma. So many sounds, so many ways to use them. You can build on a sound, dissect & deconstruct a sound, slant & spin off a sound, even innovate & create an entirely new sound altogether. The very core principle of music itself is expression, expansion, experimentation. Total freedom of creativity to create whatever sound you want to convey whatever you want. Yet somehow, the vast majority of bands today choose to sound exactly… the… same.
“AHAHAHAHA OH MY GOD DUDE CHECK IT OUT THAT’S TOTALLY US!!!!”
But even in the formulaic, soulless wasteland of today’s music industry, there remain some faint glimmers of hope. And perhaps none shine brighter than the lovable New York baroque-pop quartet, Ra Ra Riot.
Culled from the same Northeast Megalopolis indie mother lode as cousin acts Vampire Weekend & Dirty Projectors, the group first made a name for themselves tearing up the club strip in their hometown stomping ground of Syracuse University. It wasn’t long before word spread of their infectious brand of string-infused indie pop. The classically-trained chops of violinist Rebecca Zeller & cellist Alexandra Lawn, the deft fretwork of guitarist Milo Bonacci & bassist Mathieu Santos, and the crystalline croon of vocalist Wes Miles joined forces in a sort of superpowered collective of musicianship & inner chemistry. Riding the momentum of a loyal word-of-mouth fanbase, with singable singles like “Boy” and “Can You Tell” to bolster their catalog, the band saw their star rise considerably as purveyors of a truly unique sound on a pedestal of its own. A side project cropped up: the electrosoul-minded Discovery, a collaboration between Miles & Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij that’s likely the most popular indie band you’d swear you heard of somewhere before. (Go ahead, look ’em up.)
Chart-topping blockbusters they were not, the foursome were nevertheless every bit as much catalysts in the budding hybrid-indie movement of the late 2000s. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that several subsequently-formed bands incorporated classical instrumentation into their work as a direct result of being influenced by Ra Ra Riot.
Alright, you say, I’m sold. Ra Ra Riot, cool band, uses cellos, good for them, just tell me where I can buy the new album so this guy’ll shut up already.
And with that, allow me to introduce the third & latest full-length effort in Ra Ra Riot’s discography, Beta Love. And with it, the question weighing on everyone’s mind within minutes of cuing it up on their car stereo disc drive:
Where the fuck’s the strings?
Good question, dear hypothetical readers. The simple answer would be: “almost nowhere”. That’s right, on this newest LP, the violin/cello duet work that had become an RRR trademark is, well, somewhat sparse. There are two reasons for this. First, the recent departure of founding member Lawn dealt a blow to the band’s core chemistry, and rather than seeking out a full-time replacement cellist, the band felt it in their best interest to leave the honored position vacant. This happened before, in 2007, following the mysterious drowning death of original drummer John Pike– the band has not included an official full-time drummer since, employing different session artists on each album while crediting “Ra Ra Riot” in name as having no drummer. Speaking of which, someone really needs to fix that faulty Wikipedia page.
The second reason is that Miles, the group’s frontman & de facto leader, wanted to move in a different direction, something far more akin to his work with Discovery than to any existing Ra Ra Riot album. Just a quick glance at the tracklisting will affirm that. “Dance With Me”, “Binary Mind”, “What I Do For U”– those read like titles from, well, a new Lady Gaga record. Not exactly catering to the dapper collegiate intellectuals who make up Ra Ra Riot’s key demographic. It’s a change in gene for sure.
The shift in sound here is a marked one, tangible even from the opening notes of the title track. Notes from a synth. Synths? Hell, five years ago Ra Ra Riot didn’t even USE synths. Now they dish out an album chock full of them. Oh, I get it, they’re a “chillwave” band now, gone the way of every indie artist & their mother these days. Sacrificing creative integrity just to fit in with the crowd? For shame. Hey, come to think of it, that sounds exactly like something a seedy major label executive gets paid to do. Danger, Will Robinson, danger!
Fortunately, that’s not the case. What Ra Ra Riot have produced here is a record firmly rooted in synthpop, yet seen from the band’s own characteristic slant. Beta Love uses electronica as its pivot point, but it’s by no means a typical electronica record.
The melodies are clean & natural, able to stand on their own two feet better than a lot of the Top 40 tripe on the airwaves today. Wes Miles’ pitch-perfect voice radiates with energy, boasting an impressive range that benefits from little invasive post-treatment. Having seen the band perform at SXSW, I can attest that he really can hit the notes live. He’s got a set of pipes talented enough to command the music with their clarity without overpowering the rest of the band. It’s wonderful. His lyrics, too, are simple goodness, mixing terse free imagery with radio-ready choruses & refrains. On Ra Ra Riot’s eponymous debut EP, Miles borrowed a page from minimalist poet E.E. Cummings’ book for “Dying Is Fine”. Now, it’s as if he’s brought Cummings to the club with him.
Beneath this driving duo of vocals & songwriting, the rest of the band skillfully creates a vibrant intuitive musical undertow. Santos holds it down through crisp flirty bass grooves, dropping out on the lighter tracks in lieu of producer Dennis Herring’s warm programming. Counterpoint to these, icy synths & electronic drums form a delicious tandem that feels almost like the Discovery follow-up we never got. Lead single “Dance With Me” steams with electrofunk heat, while downtempo cuts such as “Is It Too Much” and “When I Dream” are slow melts that thaw from wintry intros into blooming compositions flecked with cool sonic textures & understated orchestral accents. This is where you’ll find most of the “Ra Ra Riot-esque” strings missing from the rest of the album, packaged in lovely micro-arrangements on a select few tracks. On Beta Love, the violin & cello are used to add a backdrop of ambience and color to the song, lending a somewhat symphonic mentality to the music. Miles’ catchy melodies serve as the main focus here, functioning as the first violin, the soaring solo voice to this dancefloor concerto.
Even though the approach is decidedly different on this album, it manages to retain identifiable qualities from the band’s previous work. “Binary Mind” and “For Once” don’t necessarily sound “like Ra Ra Riot”, but it’s easy to pick up on traces of second LP The Orchard in these exuberant power-poppy tracks. Behind all the keyboards & processed rhythms is that same progressive baroque vibe, just viewed here through a filter lens of futuristic synthetica. Closer “I Shut Off” is the tangent, with uptempo acoustic drums underpinning warbling vocals, nostalgic strings, and a one-two-punch breakdown from first clean synth, then guitar. Even the most traditionalist fan will reluctantly admit that it’s a pretty damn good song. None of the band’s innocent magic is compromised here– merely augmented with the addition of electronic production.
Granted, there’s a couple tracks on the other end of the spectrum. “That Much” starts off as a safe, 80s-inspired indie-pop morsel before giving way to an offset, chopped-and-mangled guitar outro that sounds like something off the last Strokes album. (You know, the one nobody really “got”.) And on the quick interlude “What I Do For U”, the band drops any pretense of “indie” anything in favor of subwoofer-blowing, heart-pounding nightclub erotic-tronica. This one’s the black sheep on the album, sounding 100% like Discovery and 0% like early Ra Ra, yet it’s just so fucking GREAT that its pull proves hard to resist. Ironically, this is my personal favorite track– the one that happens to sound the least like Ra Ra Riot. What can I say? I like the new direction they’ve taken.
All in all, Beta Love is both a step forward & a step to the side. It’s both a Ra Ra Riot album and not a Ra Ra Riot album, depending on how you look at it. At first listen, many fans will be puzzled, divided, perhaps even alienated. But closer inspection reveals many of the band’s endearing qualities, simply served in a different package, as though being experienced in a parallel universe. People who dislike synthpop will have a harder time enjoying the album, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Hell, I’m tempted to give this thing 5 stars myself, as is probably anyone else who loved Wes’s Discovery material. It’s a very nicely-produced, nicely-arranged record from a group of incredibly talented musicians who aren’t “selling out” (to what, exactly?) or “dumbing down” for the mainstream crowd as other bands have done (we’re looking at you, fun.). If anything, Beta Love is just as lush & complex as any previous RRR release, and if the electronic influence marks a crossroads in the band’s stylistic journey, I would say they’re the better for it.
So what if there’s not as much cello?
4.5 out of 5 stars
RELEASED: January 22, 2013 on Barsuk Records
MUST-HEARS: “Dance With Me”, “Beta Love”, “Is It Too Much”, “For Once”, “What I Do For U”, “When I Dream”, “I Shut Off”
DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: “Wilderness”, “Angel, Please”
SOUNDS LIKE: Ra Ra Riot! No, Discovery! No, Ra Ra Riot! No, Discovery! No, Ra sdRa riOt dfIscoVERy ddsriotra bfxgjivy leaugae stynThpoop HIPshtrer DancE poST-elEctral ptirchFrork *asphyxiates*
PERFECT FOR: Going to the club, grinding on a hot college chick who may look unassuming with those wire-rimmed glasses but knows how to get CRAYYYYZZYYYY on the dancefloor. Uh, just kidding. Yeah, totally don’t do that. Wow. You animal.
IN A WORD: Intuitive.
You can find every track’s full audio on YouTube, but here’s four of my favorites to get you started:
Listen to “Beta Love” on YouTube!
Listen to “Is It Too Much” on YouTube!
Listen to “I Shut Off” on YouTube!
Listen to “What I Do For U” on YouTube!
Check out the album, and tell me what you think. Does my opinion totally suck? Let me know why. It’s been a while, so forgive me if the review’s a bit rusty. With luck, new posts & new music will soon follow. Hope you all enjoy this album as much as I did, as well as the review, but really, who cares what I have to say?
And remember– you heard it here!