Everyone, it seems, wants more from Wesley Miles. The singer of baroque-gone-synth pop band Ra Ra Riot, Miles seems to inspire a particular imagination from his collaborating producers. Ra Ra Riot has worked with Ryan Hadlock (who went on to produce the Lumineers), Andrew Maury of RAC, Dennis Herring (who produced Modest Mouse’s path to the mainstream), and on their most recent LP, Need Your Light, Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend. Each album represented a new attempt to square the circle of the band’s apparent potential and its equally apparent lack of delivery on it.
It begins, perhaps, with the gap between Ra Ra Riot’s live performances and recorded catalog. In 2006, the band’s live show evoked a vision of Arcade Fire 2.0: a better lead vocalist, more thrashing, and arrangements with an unmistakable and unrestrained id. Then came the band’s debut self-titled EP. Propulsive songs like “Dying Is Fine” sounded flat and listless. The EP presented itself as bizarrely empty — strange for a band priding itself on overflowing fullness. The group self-produced the debut EP, the last time they solely controlled the recording of their music.
On Need Your Light, Miles and Batmanglij worked to create an even newer synthesizer sound than the one Ra Ra Riot suggested on 2013’s Beta Love. Both Miles and Batmanglij appear eager to put their baroque pop beginnings behind them in favor of something digital. Most of Need Your Light’s 10 tracks feature some keyboard buzzing at the low end of the arrangement; Miles’ vocals are often overlaid in dense, impossible harmonies. If the gap between Ra Ra Riot’s live show and its recorded material involved transforming something organic into something plastic, Miles and Batmanglij solve the problem by eschewing the organic part altogether. Everything here sounds a bit plastic.
The satisfying and vacuous opening movement of lead single “Water” and “Absolutely” show Miles in great form melodically, if little else. Ra Ra Riot’s trademark strings, now minus cellist Alexandra Lawn, appear on “Absolutely”, set against a persistent synth loop and a refrain so sticky and sweet it might cling to the roof of your mouth. Miles sings, blithely, “It’s the year of absolutely being absolutely nothing, absolutely crushing absolutely everything.” It’s the sort of empty syllogism that shows up everywhere on Need Your Light. Nothing about the band’s sound feels underdeveloped, even if the sentimental and silly lyrics do.
On the eponymous “I Need Your Light”, Miles heads for the top of the room on the title lyric, the type of maximalism coloring the whole record. The arrangement feels like something left on the cutting room of the sessions for Modern Vampires of the City. It’s meant to read as both new and old, but charting a path between the timeless and the modern only occasionally works on Need Your Light. “Call Me Out” features lively, plucked strings and a racing low end to go with a gorgeous melody. Miles stumbles through the shallowest end of the zeitgeist, singing, “I read a blog once, and I liked it. I read a comment that you left there, a link to your little secret room.” It isn’t an ounce subversive or satirical. If this is the band’s best comment on modernity, hang us all from our little white headphones.
The album’s final movement, the trio of “Instant Breakup”, “Every Time I’m Ready to Hug”, and the insane “Bouncy Castle”, explores superficial notions of hyper-modernity. “Every Time I’m Ready to Hug”, with its clapping back beat, is the record’s most fully developed composition, a song that could be a treat in this age or any other. But “Bouncy Castle”, which takes three minutes to achieve dystopic hellscape, sounds like Electric Light Orchestra lived long enough to see the age of pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines. Miles and his band have always looked forward, but they were no futurists or innovators, just the mildly dissatisfied occupiers of the present.
It is a tautology of identity formation: Finally we become ourselves. There is no imagined other or next Ra Ra Riot. Four albums in, this is who they are. A few new moves on Need Your Light alter the outcome by degrees: strings are changed out for synths, Miles has, other than on “Boy”, never sounded any better. Judged so long against who they might be next, what they might sound like under the right circumstances with the right producer, Ra Ra Riot can now only be held against themselves. The results are mixed, surely, but not anything other than what they are.
Essential Tracks: “Water”, “Absolutely”, and “Every Time I’m Ready to Hug”