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When it comes to the latest music releases, apart from recommendations by friends and trusted sources, the artwork of an album is so important in deciding what we take the time to hear. When looking at Ra Ra Riot’s three full-length LP’s, their album art has been actually incredibly well representative of what lies within the plastic. With the January released Beta Love, Wes Miles and the band might have taken a dramatically more electric approach to the recording process, but you can’t say they didn’t warn you with that futuristic red and purple cover.
With the release of The Rhumb Line in 2008, Ra Ra Riot was quickly compared to Vampire Weekend because of their similar chamber pop sound (the frontmen were actually friends from high school) and bursting vocals. The Rhumb Line got loud and even fast at times, but never actually abandoned it’s solid footing as a moderately, if not under-produced, collection of dorm room foot-tappers. The album cover for The Rhumb Line looks like a vintage hand drawn logo for some sort of Midwestern disco ball manufacturer, which makes total sense.
When The Orchard came along in 2010, we heard an even more organically warm collection from the sextet (I even almost expected them to play a few unplugged dates on their tour that year). Having recorded everything on an orchard, the band chose a beautifully bright photo of the actual wooden barn studio to be on the cover, which went along incredibly well with the symphonic music.
The clearly modified computer graded image on the cover of Beta Love is just as representative of the new music as the other two albums covers, the only difference is that in general, this new record is coming as an unexpected overhaul in the band’s already well-established style. Granted, there have been a few key changes in the lineup since cellist Alexandra Lawn departed from the group, and the band found a new producer in Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello), but there is still not much on the surface that can explain such a big shift in the music.
This new record is a 30 minute collection of synthed-out digi-pop that exchanges reverb effected guitar riffs and staccato bass hooks for processed vocal harmonies and trunk rumbling drum samples, neither of which are unfair trades by the way. When I talk about all the digital and electronic changes in the bands style, I don’t mean to be overdramatic. Compared to Daft Punk or Skrillex, this album is going to sound as tame as a Bon Iver b-side, but it’s all about context, and within the context of their other two records, Beta Love has obviously got something more cutting edge going for it, which is not inherently a “sell out” move.
The first single “Beta Love” is definitely the most catchy and re-playable song on the record. That doesn’t mean it’s the most like the older music though. In order to let “Beta Love” grow on you, it takes some embracing, which is worth the investment. If by chance your just looking for the closest to the first two albums as you can get, “Is It Too Much” is the softest of all the tracks and the only place that actually highlights the violin as a central instrument.
When examining the lyrical and thematic elements of this album, it becomes easier to understand the new image. With the majority of the band reading novels by cyberpunk novelist William Gibson and futurist Ray Kurzweil, existential lyrics like “This body that I own / It’s got no use anymore” find their way onto a few songs like “Binary Mind” and “That Much.”
Don’t get me wrong, I know that the pop charts are dominated by music very similar to what can be found on Beta Love. Gotye, Passion Pit and Fun are all obviously the main competition for artists looking to expand their fan base right now, and there is nothing wrong with Ra Ra Riot looking for a few more fans. I won’t be surprised if the band picks up those few new listeners, but they are going to also lose some of the original supporters who just want more modestly cute tunes to hum on their way to the library after class. I am sure the band is comfortable, and hopefully proud with their new sound and it’s honestly encouraging for me to see them making music that pushes their comforts and our expectations.