From Baroque Pop to Robot Rock
Beta Love, the third album from the Syracuse-based band Ra Ra Riot, captures the band in the midst of what is, hopefully, transition. After cellist Alexandra Lawn left the group in February of last year, Ra Ra Riot has sought to transform its sound from the elegant baroque pop of 2010’s The Orchard into something a little more technologic.
And this shift into the digital age is clearly, almost painfully evident. Clocking in at just over thirty minutes, Beta Love is short, saccharine sweet, and straightforward—all surface, with little substance. The album starts off strong with “Dance with Me,” an infectiously bright, catchy pop song redolent with synthesizers and vocalist Wes Miles’s distinctive tenor and falsetto trills. It’s almost as if Ra Ra Riot just discovered electronic music, delving head first into the world of electro-pop and throwing in synthesizers wherever possible. The hyperactive “Binary Mind” starts out sounding like Kraftwerk on crack, merging into an intensely energetic and upbeat pop number. And the title track, “Beta Love,” shows Miles at his most melodic (at least in the verses), vocals smooth and flowing above ’80s-style synths in staccato bursts, singing of robot hearts and digital love.
After “Beta Love,” however, the album shifts. It’s not just the new techno-pop Ra Ra Riot’s embracing, but there are remnants of the band’s old sound. “Is It Too Much” begins as a spare synth-pop song, but halfway through Rebecca Zeller’s violin steals in, the melodies rising and sinking in orchestral swells, playing in counterpoint to the vocal harmonies. Vestiges of baroque pop appear on “For Once” and “Angel, Please,” sidling in for the space of a few stanzas, relegated to the background. It’s not until “When I Dream” that the band achieves a balance of old and new, where dreamy synths and wavering call-and-response vocals blend with sweeping strings in a masterfully composed love ballad.
This is Ra Ra Riot 2.0, and clearly this new iteration of the band is still in its beta stage (if you need more convincing, take a gander at the sleazy, messy club track “What I Do For U”). And even though there’s plenty of room for improvement, Beta Love shows the band’s promise, if they just remembers their roots.