Ra Ra Riot
It's got to be tough for parents. They send their kids to Syracuse University and what happens? Do the major in business administration or maybe go for a pre-law degree. No, they join a band. Worse still, the band takes the indie route rather than engaging in the blind pursuit of pop success.
Soon after Ra Ra Riot formed in '06 they were performing around Syracuse University building a solid reputation. They played the CMJ Music Marathon in New York before landing a spot opening for Art Brut and touring North America with Tokyo Police Club. They also appeared at the '07 and '08 editions of South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin. That they managed to survive that drunkfest for two consecutive years is truly impressive. But it turns out nobody is indestructible.
John Ryan Pike, the band's drummer who also contributed song lyrics, was reported missing after a June, '07 show. He had gone to houseboat party in Hamilton, MA, and apparently fallen overboard into Buzzard's Bay. His body was recovered a few days later. It was ruled a suicide.
After a mourning period, Ra Ra Riot issued a statement saying they would continue as a band, which is exactly what they did releasing "The Rhumb Line." The title references a navigational term for a line crossing all meridians at the same angle. It was also the name of a bar near Pike's home. The album contained songs from the group's debut EP that was issued a year earlier.
The video for "Can You Tell" won Best Music Video at the '09 Finger Lakes Film Festival. An EP, "Can You Tell," followed containing remixes, demos and live recordings.
"The Orchard," Ra Ra Riot's sophomore full-length set, rolled out in '10 with Gabriel Duquette on drums. The album, co-produced by the band with Andrew Maury, was mixed by Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie) - Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), who had worked with the band prior, handled a single track.
Ra Ra Riot was nominated for The 10th Annual Independent Music Awards in the Pop/Rock Album category but lost to Shoe.'s "Speed Of Life." However, their song "Boy" was featured in a Honda Civic commercial.
"Beta Love" marked Ra Ra Riot's first studio effort since the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn. Building on demos mostly created by vocalist Wes Miles and producer Dennis Herring, the album featured high profile session drummer Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails, Weezer).
2008 The Rhumb Line
2010 The Orchard
2013 Beta Love
Ra Ra Riot is not a riot - in fact, they are closer to Arcade Fire but with a stronger pop leaning. They have been called Chamber or Baroque Rock - thanks to the cello and violin. The vocals are plaintive and the strings provide a pensive charm that underscores the lyrics. Surprisingly, it's all held together by Santos' playfully energetic bass lines.
But not surpassingly, Pike's presence is felt throughout "The Rhumb Line." He wrote the lyrics to half the songs and others reference him directly ("Dying Is Fine"). This could be a bit maudlin but Ra Ra Riot avoids that pitfall and turns in positive remembrances.
"Can You Tell," a simple song of yearning and how it's "hard to stay cool" was co-written by Batmanglij and possesses a straight-ahead delivery versus Ra Ra Riot's usual playful approach. "Each Year" shows the group's animated, engaging nature. Maybe it's the synth but "Too Too Too Fast" could have been a demo for some '80's arena pop song. What saves it is an unpolished spontaneity.
One of the unexpected outcomes of the Grunge era was making the cello a legit Rock instrument. Both Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana incorporated a cello ("Disarm" and "Dumb") to supply an emotional depth and texture. Lawn's cello does the same thing. Ra Ra Riot pulls off chamber pop with "Winter '05" and "Run My Mouth." These songs could be dour but Miles' vocals offer hope.
The title track on "The Orchard" opens the set. The ballad, with the strings upfront, has a jaunty and captivating Paul McCartney-like (post-"Revolver") 'lead' bass.
Plying an '80s Wave sound, "The Orchard's" key tracks include "Boy," "Too Dramatic," "Shadowcasting," and "Do You Remember." But they're eclipsed by "You And I Know," a song written and sung by Lawn. She not only sounds like vintage Stevie Nicks, the entire song of heartbreak channels Fleetwood Mac. While that might sound a bit shopworn, here the performance is dazzling and intoxicating.
"Beta Love" doesn't measure up. The Ska-influenced "Dance With Me" and the popish "Angel, Please" are the highlights. The rest of the album is lukewarm yet melodic synth-pop that sounds more like demos than finished songs.