It’s unfortunate when a band’s struggles threaten to overshadow its musical accomplishments. It’s even more unfortunate when the band in question hasn’t yet been granted a proper opportunity to prove itself on record. Yet such is the plight of Ra Ra Riot. Barely two years old, the Syracuse, New York five-piece has already been forced to weather both the departure of original vocalist Shaw Flick and the tragic death of drummer John Ryan Pike. Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the band soldiered on, touring relentlessly, garnering praise for their energetic live shows and eventually, recording their debut full-length The Rhumb Line. Most impressive of all is the fact that The Rhumb Line finds the band embracing, rather than escaping their difficult history, producing an album that feels at once both mournful and triumphant.
Take for example the opening number, “Ghost Under Rocks”, which, despite its suggestive title and lyrics (“On every inch of stone / Skin and blood/Made to leave you”), was actually co-written by Pike. The song pits the band’s two-piece string section (cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller) against a propulsive post-punk rhythm and even as the strings threaten to weigh the song down, the syncopated beat pushes continually forward toward the soaring chorus. Much of the bombast here is due to vocalist Wes Miles’ emotive yet detached vocals, which often recall the blue-eyed soul of Spoon frontman Britt Daniel.
“Each Year” traces out a similar pattern, with spiraling guitars and strings chasing down a hi-hat-heavy beat. The midtempo “St. Peter’s Day Festival,” meanwhile, slows things down in preparation for “Winter ‘05”, a measured, chamber-pop ballad that finds Miles lamenting, “If you were here / Winter wouldn’t pass quite so slow”.
While the first five songs on The Rhumb Line are uniformly strong, the album starts to lose its momentum just after cresting the halfway point. While far from offensive, the songs on side two largely lack the catchy hooks that distinguish the band’s strongest compositions. The end result is that the The Rhumb Line‘s second half drifts by rather unassumingly, never quite taking hold.
Still, for a band as relatively new as Ra Ra Riot, that’s a pretty forgivable offense, especially when that band is capable of penning songs like “Dying Is Fine”. The Rhumb Line‘s mid-album centerpiece, “Dying is Fine” is that rare meditation on mortality that manages to sound upbeat and hopeful without undermining its sincerity. “Death, oh baby / You know that dying is fine but maybe / I wouldn’t like death if death were good / Not even if death were good”, Miles sings, paraphrasing E.E. Cummings’ “dying is fine)but Death… (6)”. The song seems to speak volumes not just about the band’s outlook on death but also its outlook on life. An oversimplification of that philosophy might read as follows: when life hands you lemons, make the best damn lemonade you can.