Ra Ra Riot
Kevin Camp, February 7, 2013
Listen: “Dance With Me”
I have to admit: my initial impression of Beta Love was biased by a tweet I read prior to my first listen. The post essentially panned Ra Ra Riot’s new release as “gimmicky,” putting it in the same category as the work of instrumental chiptunes outfit Anamanaguchi. Coincidentally, a little internet sleuthing revealed that Anamanaguchi remixed an earlier Ra Ra Riot track, “Too Dramatic.” The remix is a good example of what it would sound like if Ra Ra Riot were actually making a complete transition to the 8-bit-inspired sounds typical of chiptunes bands. Beta Love is far removed from that sound, but the tweet was nevertheless a useful heads up about what to expect.
Bona fide chiptune record or not, Beta Love is a major stylistic shift for Ra Ra Riot. Their debut (The Rhumb Line, 2008) and follow-up (The Orchard, 2010) albums were comprised of relatively straightforward, albeit clever and well-executed, indie rock. In those days, the Syracuse, NY-based group set itself apart by making string instruments, namely violin and cello, its centerpieces. These days the group features vocalist Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci, bassist Mathieu Santos, and violinist Rebecca Zeller. Notably absent is cellist Alexandra Lawn, a Ra Ra Riot mainstay until the Beta Love era. Her departure is symbolic of the overall change in the band’s sound. The group isn’t relying on video game evoking synthesizer melodies alone, but its sound is trending in that direction. Beta Love is, openly, an indie dance record. Synth and keyboard tones are in the forefront and the rhythm section alternates between acoustic drums and sampled beats. The remnants of stringed instrumentation persist, but the band’s new direction has forced them into a marginalized role.
There is a naturally arising question here: is this a good move for Ra Ra Riot? The query is obvious, but the answer is somewhat more complicated. Certain highlights from the past are missed. In particular, Beta Love is generally lacking in the frantic, inventive drumming that guided Ra Ra Riot’s previous efforts along while keeping the ear guessing. As previously mentioned, strings take a backseat, and lamentably so. In the past, the band’s violin and cello interludes were by no means earth-shattering, but they were always smartly incorporated, and often comforting to hear in the slightly unfamiliar setting of indie rock. On Beta Love, Zeller’s violin isn’t completely absent, but its relegated role means it no longer leaves a lasting impression. Lyrically, the record represents a U-turn for Ra Ra Riot as well. The archetypal indie rock poetry of the group’s past installments has been tweaked to coincide with its new sound. Forlorn boyhood musings are replaced by dance directives and science fiction motifs. On “Binary Mind,” Miles croons about the loneliness of the “technocratic future world,” adding, “Alone in my room / It don’t matter.” The ostensibly flippant lyrics become cryptic and foreboding at second glance, but they seem to merely be a construct of the album’s sci-fi foundation.
Truthfully, there is no shortage of forgettable tracks on Beta Love. With its cookie-cutter structure, “Is It Too Much” is too stripped down to make a case for its own legitimacy. “Angel, Please” is centered on a particularly unforgivable key change. “What I Do For U” is a garbled mess, but at 1:44 it’s (mercifully) the record’s shortest cut. All is not completely lost however, as the album bangs out its share of memorable songs as well. The title track is remarkably well-produced. Its highlights include Miles’ smooth falsetto and a catchy pop synth-line that is truly a best case scenario for the band’s new sound. Opener “Dance With Me” is about as straightforward as its name suggests, but its reverb-heavy chorus catches on quickly. “That Much” calls to mind what made the band remarkable in the past: syncopated vocal patterns and punchy acoustic drums. Upbeat closing track “I Shut Off” comes as close as anything on the album to recreating Anamanaguchi’s video game vibes. The song’s MIDI-styled keyboards and sampled drum strokes are integrated cleverly enough that they truly add value to the overall product.
It shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that Ra Ra Riot is now pumping out synth-laden dance rock. I first learned of frontman Wes Miles through his involvement with side project Discovery. That group features more overt sampling and studio engineering than Beta Love, but in hindsight Miles’ releases with the project offered a good glimpse of things to come for Ra Ra Riot. The frontman has been down this road before, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some growing pains now. Beta Love probably accomplishes its goal of being a fun, mostly carefree foray into less familiar waters of, shall we say, “orchestral synth pop.” That said, calling it a success means Ra Ra Riot has set the bar relatively low. This album is simply not as outwardly compelling as the group’s prior work. Perhaps this is where Miles wanted to take Ra Ra Riot all along. He’s made it, and he can hang his hat on that. But now that we’re here I can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right. The current juxtaposition of lyrics, synths, and violin requires a precise balance of sincerity and levity to be successful. Beta Love hasn’t quite found the mark. The group may not have been satisfied with where it was in the past, but it needs to work out some kinks before it can be fully optimistic about the future.
1. I’m not making any value judgments on Anamanaguchi, just keeping the Twitter user’s argument intact.