Indie pop mainstay Ra Ra Riot has returned to the limelight with quite a surprise in store for their avid listeners. Oddly enough, the band’s third studio album, Beta Love, is almost completely comprised of upbeat music generated for head bopping and silly dancing, making for an undeniably entertaining album. It’s a tribute to ’80s dance music that is unapologetically true to the genre. The music oozes pure pop, and the beats are infectious.
However, the album leaves me questioning, “Where is Ra Ra Riot in all of this?”
Beta Love sounds like Ra Ra Riot’s familiar pop stylings sans the traditional indie rock vibe that they have been known to provide. There is a severe lack of the band’s trademark violin use and song diversity. Instead, the tracks are saturated in synth, giving each a distinctly ’80s vibe. Strangely enough, the group strays from the Ra Ra Riot music template, and as a devout fan, I found this abrupt change utterly perplexing.
While the album is honestly enjoyable, it is hard to ignore the fact that the band has yet to live up to the standard set by their 2006 debut album, The Rhumb Line. Although a great listen, Ra Ra Riot’s sophomore album, The Orchard, was unable to reach the same level of greatness as the band’s debut. In addition, Beta Love seems to be a bit less cerebral than the former two albums. The integration of a surface retro-pop sound has shaken out Ra Ra Riot’s usual weight. While this may make the band’s sound seem more fun, the album left me with a feeling that I was somehow shortchanged. However, there are some definite shining moments on Beta Love.
“Dance With Me” is the epitome of the album’s retro-pop theme, and the track that does it right. Belting, “Come and dance with me please, sweet fool,” to a bouncy beat, Ra Ra Riot’s vocalist Wes Miles forces even the most reluctant listener to smile. Fortunately, his classic falsetto, which has been one of the shining elements of the band’s style since the start, is still highlighted on the album. In fact, the catchy tunes and singable lyrics throughout the album are major highlights of Beta Love.
The songs that are probably the closest to earlier Ra Ra Riot tracks are “When I Dream” and “I Shut Off.” The former retains a great deal of the band’s original sound, and it is one of the most musically complex tracks on the album. Even lyrically, the song is compelling. Although the album seems simple, Ra Ra Riot comments on the strong feelings that derive from complicated relationships. “And when I dream, it’s not of you, no,” Miles sings over a bass-filled, refreshingly chill beat. However, only seconds before, the lyrics state, “I want to be there. Could have been more. Try to erase. This is all I’m hoping for.” The song grapples with conflicting emotions and inner turmoil, which is a nice injection of depth in a dance-based album.
While the latter track, “I Shut Off,” is more in line with the ’80s pop theme, it is still reminiscent of the band’s old style, as if Ra Ra Riot wrote a similar song a generation back. However, behind the happy-go-lucky music, the song provides some of the darkest lyrical themes on the album. “I Shut Off” is a commentary on modern relationships and the trials and tribulations of a real and gritty relationship: “Who wants a human love? A dead child? A suicide girl?” The band replies, “I do.” While the album has a robotic feel to it, these human emotions and struggles seep through the cracks.
Like “I Shut Off,” the title track and first single off the album, “Beta Love,” further explores the idea of mechanic humanity. However, the single approaches the topic in a lighter way: “If I run to you, would you stay? I might be a prototype, but we’re both real inside.” The whole “machine turned lover” borderline romantic comedy theme continues: “In this city of robot hearts, ours were made to be.” It works.
“Beta Love” is the catchiest song of the bunch. It is a downright addicting tune that burrows itself deep into the dark crevices of your mind and stays there for what seems to be an eternity. This enchanting quality is probably the greatest appeal of Beta Love as a whole.
While Ra Ra Riot has always produced great beats and is obviously keen to experimenting with various musical styles (e.g., this retro album), it seems that the band has lost a bit of their depth. Their first album, born of sadness, struggle, and dark memories –- Ra Ra Riot tragically lost their original drummer in 2007, a year before the album dropped –- has a dark, unsettling undertone that is utterly entrancing and beautiful. Their pain is palpable, yet not in your face. To me, The Rhumb Line is a masterpiece.
The second album, The Orchard, explores the ways in which life is uncontrollable and the band’s journey to accept this fact. Take the track “Kansai,” for example. The song describes the album’s theme quite nicely: “The universe is merciful.” The album reveals a passive yet peaceful way to approach life.
This third album is a bit harder to crack. While depth is occasionally revealed, at other times listeners are left with charming yet empty lyrics, which leaves me feeling a bit dumbfounded. Am I hearing the same band?
Listening to the album in one sitting left me feeling like I was transported back to prom in the ’80s. I can practically see the flouncy, brightly colored dresses bouncing up and down in line with jumpy beats and can almost feel my arms around my date’s neck as we slow dance. While this is refreshing in small doses, the album can feel a bit tedious if taken in one big gulp. With a song like “Angel, Please,” which contains lyrics such as, “Oh Angel, please. Please stay with me,” the theme goes beyond the music itself. While this is all quite charming, it seems like Ra Ra Riot is trying a bit too hard to be something they are not.
Personally, I am waiting with baited breath for Ra Ra Riot’s next album, and with any luck, they will return to their true style and regain their legacy. Without a doubt, I have hope.
Ra Ra Riot Tour Dates:
01-23 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
01-25 New York, NY – Webster Hall
01-26 Boston, MA – Paradise
02-02-03 Tokyo, Japan – Hostess Club Weekender §
02-07 Vancouver, British Columbia – Venue
02-08 Seattle, WA – Neptune Theater
02-09 Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom
02-11 San Francisco, CA – Fillmore
02-12 Los Angeles, CA – El Rey
02-15 Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up
02-16 Tucson, AZ – Club Congress
02-17 El Paso, AZ – Lowbrow Palace
02-19 Dallas, TX – Kessler Theater
02-20 Austin, TX – The Belmont
02-21 Houston, TX – Fitzgerald’s
02-23 Oxford, MS – Proud Larry’s
02-24 Atlanta, GA – Masquerade
02-25 Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
02-26 Asheville, NC – Grey Eagle
02-28 Columbus, OH – A&R Music Bar
03-01 Chicago, IL – Metro
03-02 Madison, WI – Der Rathskeller
03-03 Minneapolis, MN – Triple Rock
03-05 Ann Arbor, MI – Blind Pig
03-06 Toronto, Ontario – Lee’s Palace
03-07 Montreal, Quebec – Il Motore
03-08 S. Burlington, VT – Higher Ground
03-09 Northampton, MA – Pearl Street
Tickets are still available for Ra Ra Riot’s performance at El Rey Theatre on February 12, and for more information, visit: