Ra Ra Riot fans as well as avid TV watchers with discerning eyes and ears likely remember a Honda Civic commercial from the fall of 2011 that featured “Boy,” from the band’s 2010 album The Orchard. In the ad, a fan and his friends rolled up to a concert venue in a Civic, and the spot ended with Ra Ra Riot’s name prominently displayed on the overhead marquee. Most of us realize music placement in advertisements and on television soundtracks is a boon for bands seeking to market their music these days. Even though the practice still carries a stigma for many passionate music fans, the majority of music lovers appear to have relinquished their past antipathy. It’s likely they realize such maneuvers are legitimate ways to see their favorite acts make either thrive or stay afloat in a streaming-driven industry that pays by (roughly) the millionth of a cent.
My memory fails me as to whether Ra Ra Riot received community backlash for the Honda usage of their minor hit, but something tells me die-hard Ra Ra Riot fans who were able justify that grasp at appeal may sing a new tune upon listening the band’s third album, Beta Love. That’s not to say Beta Love is, without a doubt, any sort of blasphemous attempt to consciously position themselves for to be locks for maximum appeal to corporate brand marketers, but don’t fault those who presume that to be the case after a few listens.
Since making a name for themselves in 2008, when debut album, The Rhumb Line, earned positive print from critics and won a modest collection of vocal fans, Ra Ra Riot have been recognized as a loveable band with an impressive knack for crafting exquisitely earnest pop melodies within refreshingly warm and bouncy structures. They differentiated themselves from bands with penchants for the same by often building songs around lead singer Wes Miles’ immediately recognizable vocals and a magnificent string-laden backbone comprised of cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller. Without those pieces firmly in place, The Rhumb Line and The Orchard wouldn’t be half the resonant albums they are.
Subsequently, you can’t blame fans for entering Beta Love with trepidation since Alexandra Lawn left the band in early 2012. The rest of Ra Ra Riot (Wes Miles on vocals, Milo Bonacci on guitar, Mathieu Santos on bass, Rebecca Zeller on violin) would rightfully continue, but few could deny a fear of the unknown ahead when a musician as gifted as Lawn, one who was absolutely integral to what was a definitive sound for a band through two albums, decided to move on.
Whether or not Ra Ra Riot were at a crossroads musically after Lawn’s departure is not for certain to most outside the band, but one listen to the opening seconds of Beta Love’s opening track, “Dance With Me,” will convince you Ra Ra Riot have embarked upon a new direction regardless of whether there was a fork in the road. The band attributes the sound and theme of Beta Love to the influence of “cyperpunk novelist William Gibson and Ray Kurzweil’s outlook on technological singularity and transhumanism.” On early listens, I thought maybe the band sought to follow the leads of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix or Passion Pit for how perfectly bridge indie rock sensibilities with danceable electro-pop and, with a beginner’s luck, got too consumed with all the technological wizardry within reach. On successive listens, I leaned more towards the belief that Miles is looking to flesh out the brand of infectious electro-pop he and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij crafted under the name of Discovery on the 2009 album, LP. Beta Love is an ultra-poppy patch of middle ground between LP and Ra Ra Riot’s first two album. Even after several listens to the album in full, stalwart fans may be reconciling the chain of events that led to the creation of many aspects of Beta Love. It’s another undeniably warm, bouncy, and earnest album from the young Syracuse band, but it sports an entirely different wardrobe. The album’s title heralds a test version at hand, and the music and lyrics are drenched in synthetic textures that teem with both genuine musicianship and heavily manufactured, synthetic life.
As an album, Beta Love romps around with wide-eyed sentimentality and 80s-drenched, often-cheesy pop songs that are short, sweet, and, sadly, pretty ephemeral. The longest of the eleven songs clocks in at 3:13, and most clocks in under three minutes. The incomparable melodies that have been the bulk of Ra Ra Riot’s signature sound for two albums are alive and quite well, but the dance-ready beats, the ultra-manufactured production from Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Wavves, Counting Crows), and Wes Miles’ frequent use of Auto-tune and grating falsettos places most of the songs in distinctly more shallow water than anything on The Rhumb Line or The Orchard.
That’s not to say all songs on Beta Love are misfires or there’s nothing to get excited about. In fact, several songs are winners with indelible hooks, and the ones that aren’t mostly suffer from questionable production choices, over-reliance on technology, or ill-advised vocal registers. Even amidst the blunders, the heart of Ra Ra Riot still rings true.
“Binary Mind,” the album’s most unapologetic upbeat track is an exuberant delight that won’t sound entirely foreign to fans who have adored the band’s first two albums. That it utilizes an expertly programmed drum machine and infectious handclaps throughout the chorus makes it both a product of the Beta Love atmosphere and the album’s most stubbornly addictive song. The somber and exquisitely sweet “When I Dream” is another outright gem and is everything a Ra Ra Riot fan could desire. Abandoning his falsetto and the Auto-Tune that routinely plagues his chances of being taken seriously for the majority of the album, Miles sweetly sings, “And when I dream, it’s not of you. And when I call, I wonder, I do.” The pulsating beat and the steady rhythm of doo-wop snaps keep time along with Miles’ lovely vocals, and it’s a necessary reminder that the Ra Ra Riot you’ve known and loved is still very much present.
Those two songs are the outright winners of the group on every listen, but there’s still plenty of entertaining moments and much to be loved elsewhere on the album. If you can get past the cheesy synthesizer that provides the title track’s foundation, the chorus and verses are simply wonderful. “Is It Too Much” incorporates Zeller’s violin more prominently that anywhere else on the album, and the song is perhaps the finest merger of Ra Ra Riot’s first two albums and the technological allegiance they pursue on Beta Love. “Angel, Please” and “That Much” are both terribly catchy tunes that will etch smiles across almost any faces that aren’t harboring dire cynicism.
Unfortunately, lack of restraint in the band’s pursuit of 80s-influenced modern pop perfection also causes them to lose their footing. Though either song can win the hearts and limbs of people new to Ra Ra Riot who also have an inclination towards Top 40 radio, “What I Do for You” and “Wilderness” are likely to turn off the vast majority of lovers of The Rhumb Line and The Orchard. The former clocks in at under two minutes and is carried entirely by an alarming Miles falsetto that, when coupled with the gargantuan bass, sounds like a tossed-off remix that even Prince would consider eccentric at best. The latter isn’t necessarily awful as much as it is atmospheric, but it has the potential to be off-putting due to the juxtaposition of Miles’ strained and Auto-Tune-abetted falsetto against the glitchy 90s-R&B production that veers towards dubstep.
All in all, there’s plenty to enjoy on Beta Love, but the frustration sets in with equal measure. Ra Ra Riot is as loveable of a band as they come, and it’s hard to fault them for trying on new duds on a third album when their musical family was altered so significantly within the past year. Beta Love has the distinct feeling of a talented band letting loose and experimenting with trendy sounds in order to soundtrack a John Hughes film for the iPod (or, perhaps more tellingly, Windows 8) generation. It’s hard to argue against a John Hughes film, and you can’t really fault a still-youthful group for attempting to maximize appeal by embracing the current generation’s flavors of the month, especially considering one of their most trusted weapons in their past arsenal is out of commission. Ra Ra Riot are finding their footing right now. Have faith there are some exemplary albums in their future. Some newcomers to Ra Ra Riot will be instantly enamored with Beta Love, while some veteran ones may be a bit hostile. The truth is there are good moments, bad moments, near-perfect pop melodies, and groan-inducing misfires throughout Beta Love. As anyone who has endured a relationship shake-up will tell you, it’s all part of growing up and finding your true self.
Beta Love is out now on Barsuk in the U.S. and via Arts & Crafts in Canada.
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