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Ra Ra Riot – The Orchard

on August 12, 2010, 8:00am

Ra Ra Riot’s debut, The Rhumb Line, was a gorgeous display of melodic rock, supported by a lovely string section and Wesley Miles’ passionate voice. Plus, it also had a lot of damn good songs on it. After the success it brought them, anticipation has been running high for their follow-up, The Orchard. Unfortunately, success may be harder to find this time around. While their second LP has some songs you’ll want to add to your iPod, great songwriting eludes them.

First, let’s get some positives out there. This is a much more confident band than the one that surfaced two years ago. Miles has impressively grown as a singer, pushing his range far past anything he’s done before. He also has some chops on the keyboard, which you’ll quickly learn since it fills out almost every song. That’s not a bad thing, per se, as it almost always adds a nice touch and isn’t shoved in your face as a display of innovation. Finally, special mention must be made to Gabriel Duquette for his superb drumming throughout the record. His different styles and sounds are a big part of what’s right and what works here.

Now, on to the music…

The Orchard starts with the title track, a string-laden affair with a touch of bass and piano, which makes for a great introduction, but not a very good song. The problem is its length, clocking in at what seems like a short three minutes and 33 seconds. However, there are almost no changes throughout the piece. If it was half as long, the song would be a great way to kick things off. As it stands though, it only serves to kill any type of momentum from building.

The next three tracks make up for this though, getting the closest to the energetic dream-pop of “Dying Is Fine” or “Ghost Under Rocks.”  A walloping drumroll welcomes the high-powered first single, “Boy.” Mathieu Santos’ rumbling, bouncy bass creates great support for the shoutable chorus. The song returns to the great combination of strong instrumentation and sweeping melodic strings. “Too Dramatic” is another must-hear number, dropping away most of the music to focus on the cello, violin, and vocals in the chorus. “Foolish,” a mid-tempo piece with heavy emphasis on piano, is the most dream-pop song on the record. Click-clack drums and light synths fill in the space around Miles’ saddened voice.  The track is a nice expansion of the band’s sound while staying true to what they developed on their first album.

The only other song that moves in a new direction is the beautiful, almost cabaret “You and I Know.” The keyboard-driven number (sensing a theme here?) presents Alexandra Lawn on vocals, a first for Ra Ra Riot. Her bluesy, low key singing is the biggest and best surprise on the record. It makes for a nice change of pace compared to Miles’ often joyous, high-range melodies. The music behind the voice is also pretty impressive, bringing out the guitar in force with a rapid solo. One of the best songs on the album, and sure to be a live favorite in the future.

Sadly, that’s about it for this one. The other half of the album is the very definition of filler. “Massachusetts” drags on forever. “Shadowcasting”, “Do You Remember”, and “Kansai” all sound too similar, containing nearly no changes in style. “Keep It Quiet”, a stripped-down track of deep, resonating drumbeats, sluggish keys, and tired vocals, actually makes for a good closer. It’s just tough getting to the end without skipping through several numbers.

The main problem with this album is its lack of great songs to support their style. Their first album was an energy-soaked ride that kept listeners engrossed, even during the slower numbers. Tracks like “Too Too Too Fast” and “Suspended in Gaffa” offered a change in pace that kept you wondering what’s next. On The Orchard, only “You and I Know” creates that sense of surprise and engagement. The first and last track try to do this as well, but they work better as bookends than as actual songs. Hopefully, this record will come to life on the road. If not though, Ra Ra Riot should take a good hard look at where they went wrong here when considering album number three.

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