Ra Ra Riot came out of nowhere with its debut, 2008’s The Rhumb Line, crashing the blogs and gathering at least a decent amount of attention from the critical community. It’s an incredible piece of work, a cathartic, emotional indie-pop experience, and, quite frankly, one of the most underrated and overlooked albums released this decade. Ultimately, though, having released its debut in the same year as first outings from critical darlings Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend, Ra Ra Riot seemed to get lost in the trend-setting shuffle.
More so than the debut, Ra Ra Riot’s The Orchard feels like a labor of love. One of the best things about The Rhumb Line was its sense of urgency, the feeling that these songs had something to say, that they couldn’t have been released at any later date. There is a kinetic energy on Rhumb that permeates every track, giving each word and note a sense of necessity. Not a sound or second is wasted. The Orchard is the flipside, offering a set of songs that takes its time to impress, reveling in the small details along the way.
This is a good thing. The Orchard not only sounds like a labor of love, but also, in its heartfelt outpouring, like it’s about love. In this respect, the band hasn’t traveled thematically very far since Rhumb, which still seems like one of the most romantic and emotional indie debuts in a long while. Vocalist Wes Miles is a big reason why — his fragile tenor quivers with an honest vibrato that feels more heartfelt than just about any other vocalist around. Ra Ra Riot makes emo for adults.
Ra Ra Riot embraces an unexpected and completely awesome influence on The Orchard: ’80s Abacab-era Genesis, with its slick synthesizer patterns, rhythmic basslines, and monstrous, ornate drumming (courtesy of newcomer Gabriel Duquette) that ably recalls some of Phil Collins’ beastliest. The Invisible Touch is most visible during the instrumental bridge of “Too Dramatic”, where huge synths fondly echo those of Genesis keyboard master Tony Banks both in tone and rhythmic emphasis, while Duquette throws down on an assortment of busy percussion instruments. It’s refreshing to hear a band follow its own musical compass, chasing the influences that matter most, whether they’re cool or not (as for Genesis, uncool would be the case in today’s indie rock landscape).
It’s startling how seamlessly the band incorporates its new influences into its sound. It’s especially impressive considering the line-up: having string players in your band is limiting in that certain styles and genres of music become more difficult to pull off, with some simply off-limits, at least on paper. Violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn have found fresh, admirable ways to inject their parts in the songs; check out Zeller’s surging violin melody in the chorus of “Shadowcasting”, where you can practically feel the heat rising from her bow. The duo’s push and pull in “Too Dramatic” gives the song an extra layer of tension.
Musically, The Rhumb Line was more fully dictated by the string arrangements. It’s hard to imagine tracks from it like “Can You Tell?” and “Ghost Under Rocks” without the cello and violin that serve as firm foundations. Rhumb was so string-based, the other instruments occasionally felt like afterthoughts. Not that it was a bad thing — in fact, it was refreshing to hear an indie album not completely based on guitars. But another part of what makes The Orchard so satisfying is that it finds all the players firmly grasping and shaping their roles. Mathieu Santos’ bass is ever-present, slipping and grooving with more realized melodic presence and rhythmic intensity. His playing on the title track is transcendent, finding McCartney-esque pockets of melody around the stark implied chords of the strings.
Milo Bonocci is more active, constantly delivering more engaging and creative guitar parts that actually help shape the songs, instead of simply following them. He has always been a tasteful player, favoring quality over quantity, but, here, his parts are way more colorful, like the rapid-fire descending melody on “Foolish” and the effect-laden squeaks on “Do You Remember”, perhaps due in part to the production scope.
Most sonically striking is the prominence given to vintage-sounding synthesizers and keys, which are featured on nearly every track. In typical Ra Ra Riot fashion, however, they are used judiciously, coloring the arrangements, not defining them. Basically, this isn’t a synth album, but there a lot of synths, if you catch my drift.
Co-produced by the band with Andrew Maury, The Orchard sounds pristine. Credit should also go to Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, who mixed the album and brings along a layer of Barusk Records sheen. He finds the right sonic space for every instrument and voice, capably layering subtle details and effects and giving each sound maximum impact.
Those rewarding details are hiding throughout The Orchard — dig the way Santos’ bass notes drift and fade with tonal clarity in the verses of the gorgeous “Shadowcasting” and savor the punch of Duquette’s drums in the intro for “Do You Remember”. From a production standpoint, The Rhumb Line was a sketch. This is a sculpture.
It’s hard to pick a standout track when the quality is as high as it is here, but “Do You Remember”, mixed by Vampire Weekend producer/instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, is surely one of the most beautiful and emotional tracks you’ll hear all year. Just listen.
The weakest link is “Massachusetts”, which arguably gets the job done about three minutes in, but goes on a couple minutes longer than it needs to. With its bouncy rhythms and simple, airy harmonies, it’s quite beautiful, but it also bears a lot of similarity to something Vampire Weekend would do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing on paper — Vampire Weekend are a great band after all and possibly an inevitable reference point since Miles worked with Batmanglij on the R&B side project Discovery — but it’s truly the only point on The Orchard where Ra Ra Riot feels a part of any current indie-rock trend.
Just like on Rhumb, the lyrics here are secondary to the gorgeous melodies, but if and when you decide to look deeper, you’ll find, once again, upheavals about love and loss, sketches of romantic memories, shades of dreams. Specifically, you’ll get beautiful sounding lines like “My life is dull, and my body aches / This blood in my mouth makes me hate how we both end up”.
Ra Ra Riot is still speaking a language everyone can understand: Love. And on The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot has never spoken so clearly.