Music Reviews
The Orchard

Ra Ra Riot The Orchard

(Barsuk) Rating - 7/10

Consideration of Discovery (last summer’s electro/R&B collaboration from Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot vocalist Wes Miles) seems like a pretty good way to begin evaluating Ra Ra Riot’s second album, The Orchard.  When you think about each band, the partnership was one of the more intuitive matches in contemporary indie rock.  Both Ezra Koenig and Miles have similar singing voices; likewise, both bands crib simultaneously from punk and reggae influences, resulting in bright, explosive pop driven by big beats.  However, the two differ by how much these genres predominate each band’s musical output: Vampire Weekend exhibit a greater fascination with the music of the Caribbean, while Ra Ra Riot deliver pop-rock with arrangements and rhythms that are considerably more Anglo-indebted. 

That brings us to The Orchard.  In many respects, the album is fairly similar to the band’s 2008 debut, The Rhumb Line, where the songs were constructed from a delightful fusing of propulsive rock with thick, brainy string arrangements.  Early tracks Boy and Too Dramatic provide an ebullient kick in the pants, while also featuring impressive interplay between the group’s rock and classical elements.  However, in contrast to the quick pace of this initial salvo, the rest of The Orchard is a more restrained affair, bookended by a pair of ballads, and most other songs clocking in at less harried speeds.

Even with the band operating at less than full throttle, there’s still a great deal of melodic richness from one song to the next.  Unfortunately, the slower tempos do have a somewhat adverse effect on the band’s material, where the leisurely paced Foolish and Shadowcasting are pleasant, if a litttle unengaging.  You and I Know (sung by cellist Alexandra Lawn) also suffers from this flaw, but receives some redemption during the tunes’s rousing second half via Milo Bonacci’s tremolo guitar work, and increased involvement from drummer Gabrielle Duquette.

Duquette’s outstanding drumming is actually a subject meriting discussion in itself:  Wes Miles doesn’t command much attention as a lyricist, which creates some problems for listener involvement.  Likewise, Ra Ra Riot’s routine use of classical string instruments often has a chilly, alienating effect on the band’s sound.  On the contrary, Duqette’s vigorous, hard-hitting style sounds a bit like Bloc Party’s Matt Tong, demonstrating himself as not only the band’s backbone, but its lifeblood as well.  The jammy Massachusetts features an excellent display of chops (not only from Duquette, but from all of the band’s members).  His most unique contribution occurs on Do You Remember, which is also arguably the album’s best song.  Beginning with a deceptively clumsy beat you’d expect only from more puerile pop-punk acts, the pattern later emerges as the meeting point for the song’s soaring strings and off-kilter guitar riff.

In closing, Ra Ra Riot is a multifaceted band that probably does too much of a good thing a little too often.  Though the band features a unique combination of musical personalities, they appear dead set on using every trick they’ve got on just about every full band number.  One way to sum up the group’s development on The Orchard involves returning to our initial juxtaposition between Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend: On each band’s follow-up, both played up one of their desirable characteristics to somewhat negative effect. Vampire Weekend’s obsession with manic idiosyncrasy resulted in a Contra, an album that bordered on irritating.  On the other hand, Ra Ra Riot’s focus on overall listenability may have produced an album lacking some of the excitement found on their first record.  While The Orchard is certainly a pretty record, it’s not always the most thrilling.