Syracuse’s Ra Ra Riot is known for a lot of things—strings, boat shoes, allusions to Massachusetts—but versatility probably isn’t one of them. But on the baroque-rockers’ third album, Beta Love, the band’s sound has done a complete 180. The group’s classical melodies and anthemic lyrics have been exchanged for a pop-electronic dance party, a party that seems as though it were thrown by the popular kids of the music industry. The members of Ra Ra Riot sound like they’re trying to get invited, all while still staying “true to themselves.”
Listeners are immediately hit with the new sound on the first track on the album, “Dance With Me.” It’s unequivocally catchy, but you can’t help but wonder if you’re listening to Ra Ra Riot or Passion Pit. Wes Miles, the lead singer, has always shown off his enticing falsetto, but with the new emphasis on processing, it’s starting to sound quite similar to that of Michael Angelakos. Later in the album, the intro to “That Much” so closely resembles “I’ll Be Alright” off of Passion Pit’s Gossamer that you may be double-checking your iPhone for a glitch.
This dip into new territory isn’t entirely unappreciated, and it was somewhat necessary. Last year, cellist Alexandra Lawn left the band. Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller were the key to Ra Ra Riot’s orchestral swell that earned the band praise and a reputation as a one-trick pony on past albums The Orchard and The Rhumb Line. Lawn’s absence presented an obvious obstacle to maintaining the band’s style, presenting a choice to either try to fill the void or change its strategy entirely. Given what has proven successful in the music industry recently, I’m not convinced that they made the wrong choice.
That isn’t to say the strings have completely disappeared from the equation. Rebecca Zeller makes some beautiful additions to the title track “Beta Love” as well as “Angel, Please.” Although the flourishes are small, they bring the song together and make it complete. The album also has a few tracks that go back to the band’s roots with syncopated rhythms and whispers of mysterious harmonies. However, these tracks seem to be the token “quiet songs” on the album. Comparatively, the rest of the tracks are indisputably upbeat. On the band’s first album, it achieved a shadowy, dark tone in all of the songs, regardless of tempo. In The Rhumb Line days, Wes could be pictured humming along in a graveyard. Now, with all of the techno overtones, you can’t help but picture him in a recording studio.
The band’s talent and tight relationship as musicians still comes through on Beta Love. Despite the pop direction, there are musical intricacies to be found, of which only a band like Ra Ra Riot is capable, making the album actually quite good instead of just one among a plethora of electronic tracks. Although there is no “Boy” equivalent on the new album, in which each member features his or her expertise in one song, the band’s musicianship still shines through the album as a whole. The only song to which this doesn’t apply is “What I Do For U,” which can only be described as a robotic whine over a heavy bass beat.
One major advantage of Beta Love is the brevity of its dance-ready tracks. These quick bursts of pop energy are much more performance-ready than The Orchard’s long ballads. At a concert at Webster Hall in New York City this past weekend, Ra Ra Riot certainly catered to this feature. Only a few favorites from The Orchard were played. For the rest of the concert, the group seamlessly switched from classics on The Rhumb Line to the band’s new repertoire. It seemed as though Ra Ra Riot were trying to coax us in slowly into this new chapter of its career. And by the end, the audience was back in “beta love” with Ra Ra Riot, more than ever before. (Sorry if you thought you were going to get through this article without that pun; you were wrong.)
It’s true: Ra Ra Riot has undergone a major transformation, and this may upset many fans. But for those who are truly invested in the group’s music, the particularities that made the band unique from the beginning are still there, just under a little extra electronic fluff. But, as Wes sings in the title track, “In this city of robot hearts/ours were made to beat.” In an effort to comfort the lovers of strings and classics, Wes promises that Ra Ra Riot will not get lost in the computerized feel that is washing over much of today’s popular music. The band may need to acclimate to stay alive, but its soul of string-filled melodies will always prevail.