Release Date: Feb 19, 2016
Record label: Barsuk
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Despite having begun life as an indie outfit featuring two string players, Syracuse's Ra Ra Riot transformed into a synth-heavy, dance-oriented ensemble after the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn in 2010. Following up 2013's Beta Love, the group's fourth album, 2016's Need Your Light, finds the quartet of lead singer/keyboardist Wes Miles, violinist Rebecca Zeller, guitarist Milo Bonacci, and bassist Mathieu Santos building upon that synth pop sound with a buoyant, infectious batch of songs that better balances their love of analog keyboards with their orchestral roots. Produced by former Vampire Weekend guitarist Rostam Batmanglij, Need Your Light feels bigger, looser, and more organically robust than Beta Love.
Over their 10-year career, Ra Ra Riot have presented two extreme versions of themselves. On one end there is their 2008 breakout The Rhumb Line, an orchestral pop record distinguished by collegiate literary references and scarred by trauma. On the other is 2009’s "Can You Discover?," a synthy, Auto-Tuned reworking of one of their debut’s tracks by Discovery, a collaboration between frontman Wes Miles and former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij.
Back towards the end of the 2000s, Ra Ra Riot occupied a curious space in music. Following the explosion and slow fizzling out of nu-rave (which historians are still trying to understand to this day), a glut of experimental indie pop bands started to emerge, almost exclusively from New York. Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, Dirty Projectors and Ra Ra Riot all mixed traditional indie rock with a baroque feel.
Unapologetically pop-inclined outfit Ra Ra Riot bring endless love vibes on their fourth studio album, Need Your Light. It was their last album, 2013's Beta Love, that marked a turning point for the Syracuse, NY band, from string-heavy orchestral pop to more straightforward, synth-infused melodies and riffs. While that move was a lateral one — not necessarily a positive thing, but not a negative one either — the band's new LP finds the band moving forward slightly, with tighter tracks that really rely on singer Wes Miles' signature glass-sharp vocals.
Everyone, it seems, wants more from Wesley Miles. The singer of baroque-gone-synth pop band Ra Ra Riot, Miles seems to inspire a particular imagination from his collaborating producers. Ra Ra Riot has worked with Ryan Hadlock (who went on to produce the Lumineers), Andrew Maury of RAC, Dennis Herring (who produced Modest Mouse’s path to the mainstream), and on their most recent LP, Need Your Light, Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend.
The first and only time I saw Ra Ra Riot play live was at Siren Fest at Coney Island in 2008, the year their debut record came out. They were sandwiched in between Islands, who were having a killer summer, and Stephen Malkmus, who was touring on his best solo record, Real Emotional Trash. Ra Ra Riot were vanguards of the rising Brooklyn indie pop scene, alongside Vampire Weekend, Matt & Kim, and, at that point, Animal Collective, and their performance was on-brand.
Ra Ra Riot emerged in 2008 after their live show established a sizable buzz. Featuring violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn, as well as the untouchable tenor of vocalist Wes Miles, the group laid claim to a peppy, fresh baroque-pop aesthetic that soon became the "it sound" of indie rock, thanks in part to their friends in Vampire Weekend. 2008's The Rhumb Line and 2010's The Orchard were generally well-received, but after Lawn's departure and a dance-pop misstep (2013's Beta Love), Ra Ra Riot is back with an album of...well, more outdated dance-pop and '80s-indebted ballads.
With debut album ‘The Rhumb Line’ long being seen as their peak, Ra Ra Riot have seemed to be one of those indie bands that just can’t escape their own successful debut. So, is fourth album ‘Need Your Light’ the moment that Ra Ra Riot can finally move on? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem so. Let’s start with the positives. Opening track ‘Water’, their collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, is a decent start.
The energy on Ra Ra Riot’s fourth full-length is unmistakable. While none of the songs on the Syracuse indie-rock five-piece’s last album, 2013’s Beta Love, cracked four minutes, the ones on Need Your Light that stretch longer and build grandiose momentum work best. Ostensibly a baroque pop act, Ra Ra Riot delved into electronic territory last time around.
Beta Love, Ra Ra Riot’s last album, was a tipping point for the group’s musical identity, a transformation into full-on synth-pop that downplayed the more homespun elements in favor of processed pop gloss. It was an announcement of a more mainstream, less distinct musical identity, one that fans could either adjust to and accept, or consign to the bin of once-endearing bands that caved to the contemporary pop addiction to ’80s electronic glitz. If you’re in the latter camp, you’d be forgiven for thinking Need Your Light, the new album, is more of the homogenized same.