Ra Ra Riot have gotten pretty damn far on an admittedly small base of songs. Unlike their British peers Los Campesinos! (QRO spotlight on), who have been quite prolific, Ra Ra Riot had only put out one self-titled EP (QRO review) & the debut full-length The Rhumb Line (QRO review) – which contained new versions of all but two Ra Ra Riot EP songs. The limited output was likely largely due to the tragic young death of drummer/songwriter John Pike in 2007, and though the band remarkably kept playing afterwards (QRO live review days after), their songwriting seemed to stall a bit after the release of The Rhumb Line. There’s also the inherent difficulty in writing songs for a six-person collective, which includes a violinist & cellist. Ra Ra Riot’s live shows were still impressive as they played larger & larger venues, but eventually hit a bit of a wall in their set list (QRO live review), bringing the band back to the songwriting studio. And for their sophomore LP, Ra Ra Riot have embraced their high, orchestral side for the interesting and often compelling The Orchard, but which isn’t as pitch-perfect as their tried & true earlier work.
Ra Ra Riot let the listener know exactly what kind of record The Orchard is right from the start with the title track opener, a strings-heart high piece that is a bit overwrought, but done well for what it is. Singer Wesley Miles’ (QRO interview) vocals, already pretty damn high for a male vocalist (especially for a band with a back-up female vocalist, cellist Alexandra Lawn – QRO interview), get even higher and more ‘in love with love’, losing some of the relatable catch that had worked so well on prior pieces. However, other than mid-piece “Massachusetts”, “The Orchard” is the height of these heights, and elsewhere on the album, Ra Ra Riot better combine their older catch & newer high orchestra, such as on the following “Boy” and “Too Dramatic”. Those two pieces, while the strongest on the record, would have been perhaps better served not right next to each other on the track list, as they’re fairly similar to each other, save for single “Boy”s strong bass line from Mathieu Santos (QRO interview), and the excellent title chorus line on “Too Dramatic”.
Those killer chorus lines are, “Too Dramatic” aside, largely missing from The Orchard, and that is what keeps it from matching the excellence of The Rhumb Line – indeed, “Too Dramatic” feels like it belongs in The Rhumb Line more than in The Orchard (but perhaps that’s because obvious similarities with Rhumb‘s “Too Too Too Fast” – the actual chorus line in “Dramatic” is even, “I don’t understand it / You’re too too dramatic”…). Instead, Ra Ra Riot opt for an orchestral sound that does go some interesting new places, most notably Lawn taking full lead vocals for the first time on “You and I Know”, bringing a female emotional perseverance seemingly from another band. The following “Shadowcasting” sees the orchestral more pop, but doesn’t quite reach the impressiveness you were hoping for/expecting from Ra Ra Riot; however, the subsequent “Do You Remember” gets there. Unfortunately, the collection of good pieces in the penultimate “Kansai” don’t quite jell together, and the otherwise strong “Foolish” is marred by an out-of-place eighties synth-cheese line in the middle.
By the time the more restrained “Keep It Quiet” does that (relatively) to close The Orchard, the listener has to balance their disappointment at not getting The Rhumb Line II with an appreciation for the places that Ra Ra Riot are going. More ‘head in the clouds’ than ‘feet on the ground’ than before, and as not time- & road-tested as their earlier work, but still a singular height from a band that’s still growing.
MP3 Stream: “Too Dramatic”