Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Album Review: Ra Ra Riot - "Beta Love"

The last time we heard from Ra Ra Riot, we found them at some sort of crossroad as a band as they put out The Orchard. Their traditional sound, laced heavily with strings and classical music-infused indie tracks was being replaced with heavily pop-inspired melodies. The strings were still there, and the album was still subdued and maintained a steady, down-tempo pace to keep Ra Ra Riot's truest fans content.

But just before The Orchard was released in 2010, lead singer Wes Miles released an LP (aptly called, LP) with side project Discovery, which paired him with Rostam Batmanjli of Vampire Weekend. The album was a huge hit and was arguably the best electronic-indie-side project since The Postal Service. Combining a love for R&B and disco, Discovery's LP was an amazing entry for Miles into the electronic music world (LP hasn't left my iPod since).

Early last year, cellist Alexandra Lawn announced that she would be leaving the band. The effect this would have on the band had many fans feeling skeptical.

All of this has direct correlation with Ra Ra Riot's newest album Beta Love. I've already heard long-time fans of RRR complaining about what they've heard thus far from the album, which takes the cues of Discovery's LP and runs with it.

Every critic will undoubtedly discuss the production of Beta Love, because this album is different than anything Ra Ra Riot has done before. It is strictly pop music: ditching the classical music influences for electronic drum machines and some light auto-tuning. It's not to say that the album is bad, but it's tough not to claim it as a disappointment upon first listen.

Enlisting the production skills of Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello, Wavves) the group built upon demos created by Miles and went from there. The longest track on the album is just over 3-minutes long, with most of the songs coming in at just under 3. This is a stark contrast from their previous efforts; The Orchard didn't have a track less than 3-minutes long and The Rhumb Line had an average track length of over 3-and-a-half-minutes. But more on this later.

Beta Love begins with a solo showcase of Miles' voice: "Oh I most--/ I mostly feel I had a good day/ Oh I most--/ I mostly feel I had a good day/ it wasn't that great..." on the track "Dance With Me" - a fitting open for what's to come from the album. Which proves to be more influenced by electro-pop and powerful new wave than prior works.

There are fantastic pop songs on Beta Love, including the album's title track, which is one of my favorite songs of the year thus far. It combines the grace and range of Miles' voice and dazzling keys with club-infused beats and tempo. Uplifting lyrics centered around the theme of transhumanism and the udder joy of falling in love (seriously, pessimists need not apply) in a "city of robot hearts/ ours were meant to beat." The song is so unabashedly cheerful that it's hard to not allow your mood to follow suit.

The following song, "Is It Too Much" slows things down a little, but still utilizes electronic drum effects that can be somewhat distracting and feel misplaced. "For Once" and "Angel, Please" follow, and bring the mood and tempo back to those established by the previous three tracks. "Angel, Please" features the most prominent usage of strings on the album, and has a breakdown that again will at least humor you a little. According to Wes Miles, the demo for the song started much slower, but the group took a cue from Dennis Herring and Outkast's "Hey Ya" (no joke), and decided to "all go super happy, super positive" with it instead.

And then... there's "What I Do For You" which legitimately sounds like a new Justin Timberlake song. If there's a song that will polarize RRR's fan base, it's "What I Do For You" - featuring layered, squealing vocals, heavy bass and coming in at less than 2 minutes long.

As a whole, there are more enjoyable songs than cringe-worthy on Beta Love: "That Much" features great use of arpeggiators and drum machines, and "Wilderness" is a creepy, dystopian, slowed-down track that sounds much more like old Ra Ra Riot songs than the rest of the album.

Overall, Beta Love lacks the depth that The Rhumb Line and The Orchard provided. Whether this is a conscious effort made by the band or if this is a direct cause-and-effect of Alexandra Lawn leaving the group is difficult to conclude. The group claims that the songwriting process was much different; violinist Rebecca Zeller even stated that with the group's previous efforts the thought process was "what is going to be the string part for this?" and Beta Love featured a more "what does this song need?"-mentality: whether it was strings or auto-tuning, the focus was dedicated to the songs, individually.

This songwriting process obviously elicits a more fun and straight-forward sound, but I'm not sure it's what most people expect or desire from the band.

The general theme of the album is a disconnection from humanism and technology, taking cues from the works and ideas of William Gibson and Ray Kurzweil. And while producer Dennis Herring stressed each member of RRR to rethink their role and focus on spontaneity, Beta Love proves that, for better or worse. Wes Miles has stated "we always liked making music that moves people physically" and the band's third LP will do that, without a doubt. Some listeners will be dancing, others will be taking physical action to hurl the album across the room.

Personally, I think it's important to remember the album title, Beta Love: touching on a "test-period" as the term "beta" applies to technology. This may be a phase for Ra Ra Riot, or it may be a showcase of what's to come. Either way, Beta Love will not destroy RRR as a band; if anything, it may propel them in(to) the future, producing a sound that is much more accessible and in accordance with current music trends throughout the course of an entire album than if the band had just put out "another Ra Ra Riot album."

My Rating: 3.7 / 5

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