Review Summary: Ra Ra Riot is reduced to beta stage and remains in need of retooling
The Tough Alliance’s album 'A New Chance' opens with a call of “you were something special,” and it now seems as if the shout was directed at Ra Ra Riot. It’s nearly impossible for a band as neutral-sounding as Ra Ra Riot to jar the listener, but any fan will be shocked upon hearing 'Beta Love.' The band had, for better or for worse, been known for its embrace of strings has all-but shed its chamber music influence. With a sound that was often more baroque than pop, Ra Ra Riot put a unique twist on otherwise traditional indie pop music. The band now uses 'Beta Love' to transition away from their one trick pony status into a more keyboard driven group with the help of producer Dennis Herring, the same man who helped Modest Mouse transition into the mainstream back in 2004.
Unfortunately, the strings, in their departure, seem to have taken the soul of the band with them. Vocalist Wes Miles especially seems to have the life taken out of him. His falsetto vocals, not unlike Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos’, don’t blend with the full-volume synthesizers and the clash is evident. Title track "Beta Love" and opener "Dance With Me" find Miles in a battle with the keys to reach the highest note and the choral arrangement of “That Much” is just excessive during the piano-powered segments. The strongest tracks are those not driven by the synths. Drum-heavy song “Binary Mind,” is an almost uncontrolled release of energy with a big chorus. “Binary Mind,” however, seems to be an outlier for the album; a concentration of brilliance that can’t seep over into the rest of the music. Some of the blame for this should fall on Herring, who reduces Ra Ra Riot from a multifaceted group to a noisy band often in the same style as Wavves, whose sophomore album was also produced by Herring, without the boisterous guitars- save for the literally ear-splitting solo at the end of “That Much.”
Although the soundscape is overwhelmingly homogeneous, Ra Ra Riot is still able to put their own spin on certain tracks. The tambourines and handclap rhythms which accent “Angel, Please” pack some punch and the violin makes a cameo on the punchy, bass-driven “When I Dream,” to break up the monotony of the piano chords. More than anything, though, 'Beta Love' is the result of a failed experiment. Heavily influenced by the writings of futurist Ray Kurzweil, 'Beta Love' sounds like how the music of the future would be imagined by somebody from the 1970’s. As music in the 21st century goes, the arrangements of 'Beta Love' are old-hat; nothing that hasn’t been done a thousand times before and a thousand times better. The thematic elements of the futurism and science are often lost and forgotten on the album too. “I Shut Off,” deals with Miles turning off his emotions and “Is It too Much” comes off as a horrible parody of an over-sexualized soul song as Miles is more Barry Manilow than Barry White.
The departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn last February left Ra Ra Riot in need of a new direction to take their music. It’s evident after hearing 'Beta Love' that synthpop is not a route to explore any further than they already have. After all, the band tended more toward the Vampire Weekend side of the spectrum than the Passion Pit one. Hopefully the group will be able to right the ship, which they did in the past, following the death of drummer John Pike, and hold steady in whichever direction they go.