Ra Ra Riot balances brainy ideas with energetic pop melodies and lush string arrangements, but that isn’t the only balancing act they’ve pulled off. Wes Miles formed the band in 2006 at Syracuse University. Since that time band members have sacrificed school and career for music. They’ve dealt with the unexpected death of their original drummer and they’ve shared billing with their buddies, Vampire Weekend. Their 2008 full-length debut The Rhumb Line won rave reviews and cast them into the category of chamber pop artists. Now comes the potential slings and arrows of those waiting to pounce on the dubious “sophomore” release, the bane of so many young artists.
Time to sheath the daggers; Ra Ra Riot ably handles the pressures and challenges of the dreaded follow-up release. The Orchard is a more complex record than the band’s debut and it tends toward darker themes. The Rhumb Line featured songs by the late John Pike and his influence was very much present during the recording sessions. The band has had two years to process that loss and this album reflects that introspection as well as the impact of new members. The album takes its name from the setting of the recordings - an orchard in upstate New York. Here the band isolated itself in order to divine the direction they would take.
The title track opens the release and is notable for the prominent role of strings and bass. Just as notable is the absence of drums and lyrics that lament loss, a sort of elegy for John Pike. The second track, “Boy,” is introduced by Gabriel Duquette’s propulsive drumming followed by Mathieu’s percussive bass. The sound is pure pop with Wes Miles sweet vocal flying above guitars and violin and viola. Ra Ra Riot is often compared to Vampire Weekend not just for their academic acumen but also their musical arrangements. “Too Dramatic” underscores the comparisons with Miles slipping into falsetto and the band slamming away at breakneck speed. Again you’ll hear the similarities on one of the album’s best tracks, “Massachusetts.” VW’s Rostam Batmanglij mixed the track “Do You Remember?" and Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie helped produce so Ra Ra has plenty of hit song magic to pull from.
Another new bent from the band is cellist Alexandra Lawn taking lead vocals on the track “You and I Know.” I think it behoove the band to let her do more of this in the future. It’s good to hear an alternate voice offering a different perspective on all the introspection.