Ra Ra Riot's 'Beta Love' Explores New Synth Pop Soundscapes
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 21:01
When a rock band has a name like Ra Ra Riot (emphasis on the riot), one might expect a harsh, power metal sound to go along with it. But Ra Ra Riot, an indie rock group from Syracuse, NY, delivers something a little more light and poppy than their name suggests on their third and latest album, Beta Love. The album also marks a change in the band’s personnel, after the departure of their cellist Alexandra Lawn last year. Despite this loss, the band emerges on their latest release in strong form, delivering a swift 11-song collection that often sounds more like chamber pop than indie rock. Although Beta Love isn’t a very weighty musical statement (the songs themselves are extremely short, with the longest clocking in at 3 minutes and 10 seconds), it does offer an enjoyable listening experience complete with some surprising musical flourishes.
The opening track, “Dance With Me,” expresses one of the most basic urges in pop music: the urge to just let it all go, and take up a dance. “Come and dance with me, bittersweet fool / I wanna be your toy, I wanna be your toy,” lead singer Wes Miles exclaims over a background of bouncing synth beats. It’s a high-energy opener that flows nicely into the second track, “Binary Mind.” The song touches on themes of technology, as Miles sings of a “technocratic future world” and repeatedly declares in the chorus, “I wanna read you with this binary mind.” “Binary Mind” also shows off the band’s new focus on synthesizers and electronic pop sounds, as opposed to their past efforts dominated by an orchestral string section.
The title track, “Beta Love,” continues this exploration into electronic sounds, prominently featuring a highly auto-tuned falsetto, though it also displays the band’s traditional strings in a key part. The album’s theme of love in a world of futuristic technology is especially visible here, with lines like “In this city of robot hearts, ours were made to beat.”
One of the album’s most successful moments is “For Once,” a propulsive two-and-a-half-minute song that skillfully integrates Ra Ra Riot’s various musical styles, and utilizes violin to great effect without ever becoming overbearing. The band strikes a similar balance on “Angel, Please,” one of the poppiest efforts on the album, featuring a catchy chorus, appealing harmonies, and a clap track over a musical soundscape dominated by keyboards and strings.
Unfortunately, the band does not always pull off such a tricky balance. “What I Do For U” is a discordant attempt to join electronic pop with R&B and hip-hop elements, and has a rather annoying falsetto. (Thankfully, it’s also the album’s shortest song, at one minute and 44 seconds—though this only underscores how unnecessary it is.) The track that follows, “When I Dream” is much more restrained and has some of the finest vocals on the album, with Miles singing “When I dream, it’s not of you” in a song that’s less of a put-down and more of a reflective look back at a prior romance. It’s a nice, soft break from the album’s more bombastic moments.
But then the album gets a little more bombastic with tracks like “That Much,” which starts off nicely but by the end dissolves into clashing electronic sounds that are, well, a little too much. But Beta Love closes on a strong note with “I Shut Off,” whose electronic soundscape, compelling beats, and quality harmonies recapture the energy of the opening track and bring the album full circle nicely.
Ultimately, Ra Ra Riot should be commended for their willingness to explore beyond their musical comfort zone, and on Beta Love’s best moments the experiment is pulled off quite nicely. Even with a few clunkers and head-scratching decisions, Beta Love is a worthwhile effort proving Ra Ra Riot’s continued relevance in the American indie rock scene.