For a band that has been around for less than five years, it might seem a bit early to think about reinventing. Ra Ra Riot started their journey solidly in the chamber-pop vein, combining indie rock with lush orchestrations—but for their new album Beta Love, they have jumped forward (backward?) with both feet into a modern-framed synth-pop with obvious 80’s New Wave influences.
I happen to think it works; others might not.
Perhaps necessity was the mother of re-invention in this case; the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn last year definitely reshapes the band’s chamber-pop sound. (Then again, if you really want to stay there, you can simply find another cellist.) Or perhaps the band were fearful of being musically typecast, or were uncertain about having the string section define their sound. Or maybe they just wanted to make a record people could dance to. Whatever the case, the only way to describe the computerized sounds of Beta Love is as a reboot. Pun intended.
As I listen through the tracklist, I can almost hear the band exploring their new musical space, experimenting with different styles and sounds to see what they have on their palate—from the dirty synths on the title track (a-la The Naked and Famous), into an electro-R&B vibe for “What I Do For U” (lasting a merciful under-two-minutes), and bouncing several times toward flat-out retro New wave on tracks like “Binary Mind” and “I Shut Off,” both of which sound as though like they literally lifted the drum/bass track from a-ha’s “Take On Me.” That’s not to say the strings are completely gone. The violins of Rebecca Zeller are sprinkled throughout the tracks, and as if to remind listeners that this is still, in fact, Ra Ra Riot, the strings make a pronounced appearance in “Is It Too Much.”
Lyrically, Beta Love is pretty much as the title suggests, dealing with themes of love in an ironically un-erotic fashion. This is going to sound stupid, but it brings back memories of a cheesy 80’s movie I once saw called Electric Dreams, one of those early attempts to tackle the topic of Artificial Intelligence. The main character asks his computer to write a romantic song for him to help him impress a girl; the computer, obviously missing the point, creates a lame-sounding tune including the ridiculous lyric “And I want to see your t*ts.” While there’s nothing quite so obtuse about the lyrics on Beta Love (the songs are actually quite intelligent), there is still something almost comical to me about discussing matters of the heart against the backdrop of computer beeps and pulses—kind of like the lovelorn trying to have a meaningful conversation with R2D2. It’s more of a clinical/scientific/philosophical approach to the topic. Not romantic, but interesting.
That being said, there’s one thing about the band’s new musical direction that is a definite plus—and that is that remarkably, Wes Miles’ pure, almost boyish vocal qualities fit very well in this style. Seriously, he sounds as though he were made to sing this type of music. And that’s a good thing, because it really makes this musical shift sound more natural for the band as a whole. Think of it as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Will this prove to be a boon or a bust for Ra Ra Riot? That remains to be seen. I have a feeling that some early fans might be a bit alienated by this rail-jumping. But taken by itself, apart from the band’s last two records, Beta Love is actually a really good record, especially if like the whole synth-pop/dance thing. If this is your first time hearing Ra Ra Riot, you’ll simply think this is what they’ve always sounded like, and you’ll go along for the ride. Or start dancing.