Ra Ra Riot came out of nowhere with its debut, 2008’s The Rhumb Line, crashing the blogs and gathering at least a decent amount of attention from the critical community. It’s an incredible piece of work, a cathartic, emotional indie-pop experience, and, quite frankly, one of the most underrated and overlooked albums released this decade. Ultimately, though, having released its debut in the same year as first outings from critical darlings Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend, Ra Ra Riot seemed to get lost in the trend-setting shuffle.
Start at the beginning and let it play all the way through: The Orchard gives us an achingly mature version of a band yet to fail. Wes Miles sings his heart out, but not any more than the rest of the musicians play. Along with some help from Andrew Maury and mixed by Chris Walla (with one assist from Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij), this incredibly talented group commits to a sound that is reflective of the challenging but thrilling days we are currently aging ourselves through.
When not dabbling with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij in electronic duo Discovery, Wes Miles is the sensitive, husky-voiced leader of soft rockers Ra Ra Riot, whose debut gem, The Rhumb Line, expertly sewed together the disparate elements of baroque pop and indie rock. The lion-throated Miles is consistently (and unapologetically) a pining romantic, leading his cellists and violinists through dreamy, yelp-littered paeans to unrequited love. The Orchard is no different: Essentially The Rhumb Line, Part II, the album polishes and perfects rather than expands Ra Ra Riot’s dreamer sound.
The follow-up to Ra Ra Riot's well-received debut album opens with a slow-moving reminder that this romantic indie-styled Syracuse sextet love their violins and cellos. After that, RRR get at what they do best: the quirky, anthemic, butterflies-in-your-stomach pop ballads that falling-in-love montages get set to in teen dramas. Sure, the verse on lead single Boy rips off Y-Control by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs pretty hard, but at least they pin a solid chorus onto it.
Sometime during the run-up to the release of Ra Ra Riot’s new album, I read that they somehow moved upwards of 60,000 copies of their debut record, an eminently un-shabby amount in this post-torrent era. 2007’s The Rhumb Line was hardly a weak record, but it was twee and liberally artsy both characteristically and in terms of content. Featured on that album (following an earlier Daytrotter version) was a cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended In Gaffa,” which, while inferior to the original, signaled toward a potential direction for the future.
Consideration of Discovery (last summer’s electro/R&B collaboration from Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot vocalist Wes Miles) seems like a pretty good way to begin evaluating Ra Ra Riot’s second album, The Orchard. When you think about each band, the partnership was one of the more intuitive matches in contemporary indie rock. Both Ezra Koenig and Miles have similar singing voices; likewise, both bands crib simultaneously from punk and reggae influences, resulting in bright, explosive pop driven by big beats.
The turmoil the members of Ra Ra Riot had to go through just to put out their debut album -- the death of founding member John Pike, deciding whether to continue without him, trying to top a beloved single (“Ghost Under Rocks”) -- is usually spread out over a band’s entire career. They had to deal with it over the course of a year, ultimately succeeding with 2008’s winning Rhumb Line. So it’s not surprising that, minus the strife, their sophomore album, The Orchard, is a more temperate affair.
And it all started so well. Ra Ra Riot's second record conveniently mirrors their career to date. There's so much promise here. But something seems to have veered from the right path, slightly. Regularly compared to Vampire Weekend - which gives the band added exposure but also places them in a ….
When Ra Ra Riot released The Rhumb Line in 2008, they sounded like a thinking man’s pop band: quirky, melodic, and unconventionally chic, with a small string section that lent a sense of sophistication to the band’s sound. They wrote straightforward songs and performed them with complex arrangements, each member limiting his or her own parts to allow room for the cello, violin, and guitar lines to breathe. On their sophomore effort, though, the musicians sound a little too bogged down by their own cleverness.
Being friends with Vampire Weekend would've helped any band in 2008, but it was particularly beneficial to Ra Ra Riot and their relentlessly charming debut, The Rhumb Line, whose college rock came in similarly preppy tailoring. Plenty of this genre's practitioners have attended ritzy private schools, but these two bands sounded like it: melodically nimble and compact songs bedecked with chamber-pop sweetener and nods to 1980s art-rock. Of course, Ra Ra Riot never faced the same accusations of cultural appropriation or privilege (maybe because Syracuse isn't in the Ivy League?), but oddly enough, their detractors denounced them as even less edgy and more buttoned-up.
There's something definitively '80s about Ra Ra Riot. Upon first listen, it seems as though it may be the singing of Wes Miles, with his airy, ecstatic squeals. Of course, there are the sudden flashes of keyboards to help the mood along. But that's only part of the equation. Further listening ….
The world of Ra Ra Riot has changed drastically since the band’s formation back in 2006 on the campus of Syracuse University. What began as nothing more than a series of house parties rapidly grew into something exponentially larger, as the band unsuspectingly found itself the holder of coveted slots at both CMJ and SXSW before 2007 had come to pass. Suddenly, indie hipsters were gushing over the group’s chamber pop aesthetic and literate songwriting bent; the future was looking bright indeed, though the tragic death of drummer John Pike and stylistic similarities with Vampire Weekend inevitably stalled any sense of ascendancy.
Syracuse art-poppers need to let their instincts do the thinking. Kevin Harley 2011 Art-pop sorts are often accused of fumbling the ratio of intelligence to intuition, but this Syracuse outfit dodged such slap-downs on their 2008 debut album, The Rhumb Line, transcending their over-eagerness by buzzing like a baroque Vampire Weekend with a jones for the artier ends of 1980s British pop. On a more chamber-pop-styled second album, though, the balance proves trickier to sustain.