Release Date: Aug 19, 2008
Record label: Barsuk
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Ra Ra Riot’s debut album The Rhumb Line charges out of the gate with ”Ghost Under Rocks,” a bass-and-cello-driven outburst whose urgency recalls Unforgettable Fire-era U2. Two tracks later, ”St. Peter’s Day Festival” proves them equally adept at sighing balladry. Founding member and drummer John Pike co-wrote both of those tunes, along with three others.
Even before their original drummer, John Pike, tragically drowned last suumer, New York’s Ra Ra Riot were shrouded in death. In the lyrics, written by Pike and lead singer Wesley Miles, images of ghosts, cemeteries, and dying young pop up again and again. But it’s death viewed from the Morrisey school -- as an affirmation of life (see “Cemetry Gates” from The Queen Is Dead).
Perhaps most noticeable are the performances by cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller, who alternate between short, focused bowstrokes and legato-style lines. Indie rock isn't a typical home for string sections, but Zeller and Lawn integrate themselves well during songs like "Can You Tell" and "Winter '05," two elegant numbers that revolve around the girls' contributions. Frontman Wes Miles sings those songs with sweet vibrato and a hint of an English accent, sounding like the sort of polite rock star you'd like to bring home to Mom, and guitarist Milo Bonacci deserves kudos for playing sparse, tasteful riffs that leave enough empty space for the other bandmates.
Those of us who remember Princess Diana's death are probably of a cynical enough bent to recall it as a pretty ridiculous affair; millions of people reduced to histrionic wrecks by the demise of a faintly ridiculous celebrity none of them had ever met. It still seems kind of overblown (I mean, she was basically a soap opera character, wasn't she?), but 11 years and a few funerals on, I can understand it a bit more. Nobody shows you the way to grieve, and so outside factors – be it a book, a film or a government-staged outpouring for a public figure – can act as lightning rods for the pent up charge of loss you've been holding onto for too long.
College-rock quintet emerges with dynamic LP, leaves room for growth While several songs from the band's 2007 self-titled EP reappear, The Rhumb Linelines and toe-tapping drums that call to mind Death Cab for Cutie's We Have The Facts and We're Voting Yes. Long-time fan favorite "Dying is Fine" maintains its original intensity, while its lyrics (albeit derived from an E.E. Cummings poem) still sound haunting more than a year after the death of former drummer/vocalist John Pike.What creates this vessel's momentum, though, is its distinctive string section, one moment stirring a decorative zephyr, the next billowing the sails with as much power as a shredding guitar solo.
Indie rock and strings: somehow, they fit together without much trouble (see Cursive's The Ugly Organ and The Arcade Fire's Funeral for further evidence of this fact. ) Ra Ra Riot is further proof of the compatibility of violins and cellos with jangly guitars and upbeat vocal strains, and it is on this simple foundation that the bands bases its debut full-length, The Rhumb Line. Bouncy (but not bubbly) percussion and string arrangements combine to lend Ra Ra Riot a sense of genuine emotion; Dying is Fine stands out as the apex of the band's style, and it's no surprise it's the first song on the album to be made into a video.
RA RA RIOT Rhumb Line (Barsuk) Rating: NNN Despite the exuberant melodies and rousing timbre of Wes Miles's vocals, there's a dark and heavy spectral presence on Ra Ra Riot's debut long-spinner. Their drummer, John Ryan Pike, who co-wrote half this album, drowned last summer in Massachusetts, near his home. This gives added solemnity to lyrics like "If you were here / Winter wouldn't pass quite so slow" on Winter '05, for example, even if they aren't necessarily about Pike.