The Syracuse kids of Ra Ra Riot have had themselves quite a year, touring up a storm as if sleep were not an essential human need, regrouping and deciding to continue on after the tragic death of original drummer John Pike, and finally finding a label home with Barsuk records. Having reworked several tracks off their self-titled EP, their first full length The Rhumb Line is a fantastic debut that presents the group’s fully formed sound — a healthy mix of tweaked oldies and surprising new numbers that expand the breadth of their own potential. Besides a show-stealing live performance, Ra Ra Riot’s quick appeal lies in that fact that they beef up their catchy, indie pop songs with a sheath of artistic achievement that adds a rewarding richness to their sound. Carefully arranged and expertly executed parts — such as the ever-thudding bass lines — add a zesty running exuberance, while the classy string contributions of violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn lend an opulent warmth. Wes Miles constructs lovely vocal melodies full of delightful flourishes, and his performance contains the range necessary to deliver them all with both sweetness and authority.
And they’re literary! Lyrics for the reworked “Each Year,” which Miles executes with a warble similar to that of Beirut’s Zach Condon, are informed by considerations of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The somber yet catchy “Dying is Fine” takes its name from an E.E. Cummings poem, a piece of work from which lyrical content is also borrowed. This song’s EP-to-album update is one of concision and “hit” sensibility, as the original is a full minute longer and accordingly gives the members more time to explore and indulge in breakdown moments. The slick Rhumb Line version tightens up the production and arrangements, decisions that take away from the cinematic and remorseful string parts but give the song a more coherent structure.
The gorgeous “Can You Tell” has also been taken down a notch, so that a track that had once been as upbeat as any on the EP is here just the sweetest little love song. The formerly reggaeish opening has been given the voice of a confused, aching romantic hopeful as softly weeping string parts provide the tone needed to take this one from rocker to ballad. Similarly masterful orchestration is employed on the new and very Beatlesy “Winter ’05,” where after a foreboding death-march drum opening the gentle sentiments of lovey doveyness are slid in with the strings’ soothing moans. And, if one was ever baffled by a song’s use of jingle bells they needn’t be here.
If such revisions and newbies were all that The Rhumb Line had accomplished, we’d still be left with a satisfying, complete introduction to Ra Ra Riot and an interesting lesson in what happens when a song is given close attention in the studio. And then suddenly on the album’s seventh track everything takes an odd turn to the 80s, a decade you’d figure had informed these folks, but didn’t realize they’d be closely visiting. The dancey synth of “Too Too Too Fast” quite directly sounds like a cheesy summer hit of that decade as Miles experiments with talk-singing that gives his words a lovesick emphasis. Soon after comes a truly excellent cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended in Gaffa,” whose inherent quirkiness is transformed with the magic RRR touch of strings in the place of the original’s exotic backing vocals as the waltz is built into something of an anthem. It ends up sounding like it should be a Ra Ra Riot song, so much so that it proves the distinctiveness of their sound and cements our acceptance of the catchy new guy.