Review Summary: Everything a sophomore effort should be.
I love it when bands surprise me. For someone who thought Ra Ra Riot were like a lesser Vampire Weekend with a string section after 2008’s so-so The Rhumb Line
, I was ready to push through The Orchard
and let it down gently. Then I listened to it, and lo and behold, a band I had written off ends up backhanding me across the face with one of the better albums I’ve heard all year. Previous fans of the band will no doubt be delighted to hear that singer Wes Miles still sounds like Ezra Koenig, if a little more prone to falsetto, and that the band’s bouncy brand of pop-rock is still very much in evidence (just check out that ADD bass line on uber-catchy single “Boy”). But whereas The Rhumb Line
was all meaty melodies and festival-ready sing-a-longs, The Orchard
feels like a proper album
of baroque pop – the songwriting is noticeably stronger, the band takes their time around the tunes rather than jumping headfirst into hooks, and the lovely strings of violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn seem far more integrated into the affairs here rather than the gimmick they at times appeared to be on their debut.
It’s a record that knows that the best way to start an album is not a rookie move like throwing out your best song or first single, but to kick things off with a track that announces a new, determined direction instead. “The Orchard” is just that song, floating along ominous string chords and a pensive bass line without a hint of drums or guitar. The focus is purely on Miles, who sounds like a markedly more assured vocalist throughout the record and never as clearly as he does on “The Orchard.” The strings at the forefront is something repeated throughout the album, from the way they add a melancholy note to the otherwise upbeat “Boy” to the way they arch and dip across melodies, putting their indelible stamp on songs like “Do You Remember” and “Kansai.” The fact that Zeller and Lawn are the centerpiece of songs rather than a touch of color here or a flourish there makes The Orchard
everything The Rhumb Line
hinted at but never accomplished: the sound of a complete and full band, utilizing an array of sound and talents in a more organic way than many of their peers.
Not to say that the rest of the band suffers in comparison. Drummer Gabriel Duquette is the unsung hero here, laying down a number of intricate beats that always propel things forward but never overwhelm. Like the National’s Bryan Devendorf or Bloc Party’s Matt Tong, Duquette has some impressive chops (check out his subtle work on “Massachusetts”), but uses them more to build a rigid rhythmic framework than show off. Everyone contributes, whether it’s consistently fantastic rhythm work, airtight melodies and subtler hooks, or Miles letting Lawn on the mic for the excellently Fleetwood Mac-ish “You And I Know.” There are a few missteps; seriously cheesy synths midway through “Foolish” mar some perfectly good dream-pop, and the sluggish “Keep It Quiet” ends the album with a whimper rather than a bang. But perhaps that’s to be expected – The Orchard
is nothing if not a sharp left turn from the cheery, thumping pop of their debut, and ending it on its most plaintive note is sort of fitting. It’s also everything I wanted from a sophomore effort: sophisticated, confident, surprisingly layered, and endlessly entertaining. It’s always exciting when a band seems to get it and come into their own as a group – with The Orchard
, Ra Ra Riot have finally created a distinctive identity all their own.