Their name suggests that Ra Ra Riot makes either raucous or humorous music. Or maybe this is what your English teacher calls irony. On their second record, the Syracuse sextet offers more orchestral pop tunes tinged with the ache of love gone wrong.
Released last week, The Orchard continues on the path that Ra Ra Riot established on their 2008 debut, The Rhumb Line. Once again, frontman Wes Miles provides the heartache with his high-pitched vocals, while the string-driven band offers a cathartic cheeriness that seems inspired by an 80s teen movie soundtrack. The album cover, a suburban house illuminated at night, speaks to the paradoxical mood: a veneer of wholesomeness that masks angst beneath the surface.
Ra Ra Riot, Shadowcasting
In their pop perfectionism, Ra Ra Riot sounds similar to former tour-mates Vampire Weekend; Miles likely learned some lessons from keyboardist Rostam Batmangi, who mixed one track on The Orchard and with whom Miles has collaborated in the past. Like those polished preppies (and Sufjan Stevens), Ra Ra Riot loves strings: Alexandra Lawn (cello) and Rebecca Zeller (violin) play on every song on The Orchard and help define the record’s sound. RRR also resurrects the spirit of The Police, with its interplay among syncopated bass lines, minimalist guitar, and sparse drums. Meanwhile, with his yelps, falsetto leaps, and quasi-British inflection, Miles gets in touch with his inner Sting.
Ra Ra Riot, Massachusetts
Lyrically, The Orchard is all heartbreak, all the time. The lovers in these songs are cold, foolish, doubtful, callous, miserable, and uncommunicative. Yet the lyrics avoid the source of their suffering. As a result, the songs often sound like indie haiku. Even the album’s title is an enigma, explained only by a single lyric on the title track: “All my life/You were important/And your father too/Wandering the orchard/Through burning golden eyes.” Then again, an orchard is less esoteric than the title of their first album. (A rhumb line, a.k.a. a loxodrome, is a line crossing all meridians of longitude at the same angle. Take that, math rock.)
If the first nine songs on The Orchard juxtapose pain and hope, the last track is pure agony. On “Keep it Quiet,” Miles pours out his heart over sustained keyboard chords while a solitary drum pounds quarter notes. The melancholy builds for two minutes before guitar, strings and and backing vocals break the tension. For the next two minutes, Miles turns up the emotion with the repeated phrase “Oh My God/Oh My God/How Can I Want to Stay Around?” before the song ends with a single drum beat: an appropriate end for a record of quiet riots.
Ra Ra Riot, Keep It Quiet
Ra Ra Riot is on tour through November, with four shows this fall in New York: two at The Bowery Ballroom and two at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. For more music and videos, see the band’s web site.