Music Reviews
Beta Love

Ra Ra Riot Beta Love

(Barsuk) Rating - 4/10

Ra Ra Riot’s last album, The Orchard, was a disappointment due to both a lack of innovation and a weaker set of songs than the band’s excellent debut, The Rhumb Line. This time around, changes galore are afoot. The biggest impact to the group’s sound was the loss of cellist Alexandra Lawn, who left the band in February 2012. Perhaps as a result of this departure, Ra Ra Riot has completely shifted their sound away from the string-drenched, rafter-aiming baroque music of albums one and two. Instead, they’ve set their sight firmly on the dance floor.

Beta Love is an almost complete reinvention of the band’s signature sound. Both strings and guitar have minimal roles throughout most of this record. Those have been replaced by a wall of synthesizers and electronic beats. The result would be unrecognizable as the same band if it wasn’t for Wes Miles’ vocals. While a new direction could have worked out in five-piece’s favor, the change goes too far and the songs can’t back it up.

Dance With Me starts the album with Miles’ voice and a slinky keyboard. Not bad, but once the rest of the music kicks in, you’ll wonder what the hell just happened. The track turns into an overcrowded, overly noisy mess of synths and beats. There is certainly a burst of energy and enthusiasm filling every corner of this track, particularly in the undeniably catchy chorus. But the bridge is a strange, remixed electronic slog that is supposed to build back into the chorus but clumsily lurches forward instead. Binary Mind isn’t much better, with a stuttering drum part and some echoes put on Miles’ voice.

While some tracks keep enough instrumentation or melody to be listenable, the worst offenders are those that dive off the deep end of the remix pool. What I Do for U is a generic R&B-sounding club song, with nothing but a mind-numbing beat and Miles’ voice singing over a non-existent melody. That Much is equally ill-fitting, ending with what should sound like a guitar solo, but winds up turning into a dubstep warp without the drop.

Some numbers that have a lot of potential suffer from the overuse of electronica. Is It Too Much starts off as a low-key affair. The piano quietly plinks out a lovely melody, the guitar noodles add a strong sense of character and the expressive, mournful strings are a welcome addition. It’s the type of track you expect to hear during a slow, city nighttime driving sequence on film, one of those movies with odd cameras and slow-motion. It’s hurt though by the superfluous electronic bass drum that fuzzes and reverberates throughout the track, which is like trying to listen to a song in your room with a construction crew working outside.

Still, despite the major flaws, Ra Ra Riot does meld their new synthpop focus to their earlier, organic style on a few songs. The first single and title track brings out an immensely strong chorus, as all the music drops away aside from Miles’ falsetto and the keys found all the way to the right on a piano. The atmosphere built with multiple layers of Miles’ voice in the bridge is a nice touch as well. It’s the sort of song that proves this marriage of sounds had promise.  

An even better example is For Once. Unlike many songs here, the percussion is powerful, but not overly electronic. Strings are prominent again, etching out the occasional melody and there is a focus on live keyboard. Vocally, it’s another strong performance by Miles, who is the champion of this record.

While songs like Too Too Too Fast from Ra Ra Riot’s debut has shown that synths could fit in well with the band’s personality, Beta Love goes overboard with them, burying the group’s instrumentation under waves of electronica. This album may have been a growing pain in their attempt to evolve past their initial signature baroque pop, but it sounds like they missed a few steps that needed to be taken. Hopefully, they’ll find a way to fuse these two distinct styles into a cohesive whole.