I discovered Ra Ra Riot in a rather roundabout way. Brunching in a restaurant one Sunday, I heard a song playing in the background that caught my ear, particularly the sound of the singer's voice. When I asked the waitress what the music was -- this was before I had Shazam -- she checked and it turned out to be a group called Discovery. A quick visit to Amoeba Records and indeed I found said album by Discovery -- called LP -- and bought it on, appropriately, vinyl. I wasn't disappointed -- it turned out to be a fun, quirky mishmash of blips, bleeps and dance beats with the aching vocals of singer Wesley Miles. It turns out that he is the lead singer in a band called Ra Ra Riot and Discovery was but a side project for him with the keyboardist from Vampire Weekend.
On Record Store Day (RSD) last year I picked up a limited edition split single Ra Ra Riot put out: a great cover of Steve Winwood's hit Valerie, on white vinyl, and was further enchanted by the singer and his group as they somehow made the overplayed 80s track sound fresh. I've since been working my way through their catalog and enjoying discovering a rich young band emerging with some fun and compelling songwriting. While I was initially surprised to hear a strong blend of cellos and chamber music pop type constructions in Ra Ra Riot, it all starts to make sense and fit in with the glitchy dance pop of Discovery. Especially when you consider their latest album Beta Love, sounds a lot like Discovery. Imagine, if you can, a rocking version of The Captain & Tennille by way of Sign of the Times-era Prince, Genesis and perhaps early Speak & Spell-era Depeche Mode.
The grandiose album-opening thump of "Dance With Me" -- with its great hook line: "come and dance with me bittersweet fool, I want to be your toy I want to be your toy" -- is a perfect slice of retro-pop dance swagger. First single, "Binary Mind" blends old school digital and modern analog in a propulsive mix: drum machine hyper beats meet real live drums as beep-boop 8-bit style production sweeps compliment cellos and singer Miles' aching vocals on top of it all. I dare you desktop disco dancers reading this to try not to keep your legs from bouncing around on this one.
I suspect these guys have listened to lots of old 70s pop and soul music as well as a fair amount of Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips - a good thing. Tracks like "For Once" on the new album remind me of early Emitt Rhodes and The Archie's by way of mid-1970s "Who Loves You" disco-era Frankie Valli -- it's fun, goofy, silly, light and utterly refreshing. The title track is worth it the price of admission alone for the great line "in this town of robot hearts you will be my beta love." Haven't heard smart computerese pop like this since Yellow Magic Orchestra.
My favorite song (so far, near the end of the album) is called "That Much." The song samples its own killer drum fill and signature hook and then breaks into an rollicking reggae lilt as it drives home the album's seeming lament about broken loves. Musically, this song looks back while looking forward, making something new along the way: late 70s sounding Doobie brothers-like chorus tags works really well, while the song breaks into this insanely wonderful end solo section of sliced and diced, digitally manipulated guitar, pixelating sound to a dramatic ending.
The album sounds fine on CD but you may want to spring for the 140-gram colored vinyl option being sold via the band's website (for less than $15). I'm really very pleased as it sounds warmer and bigger than the CD, revealing more instrument details, percolating effects and production touches. It rounds out some harsh edges -- on a digitally driven album like this there is a fine line where cool glitchiness becomes unenjoyable, so the warmth of vinyl (and processing through my Bellari tube pre amp) makes it all the sweeter. My only nit is that the vinyl is not entirely quiet in terms of surface noice; perhaps after a few plays it will lose some of the little noises I noticed. Nonetheless, Beta Love comes in a lovely die cut cover pressed on gorgeous purple swirly vinyl, making this one a keeper and one I'll be playing a whole lot. It comes with a good sounding 320 kbps MP3 download for the car and mobile use. If this were not enough, on RSD 2013 the band put out a 10-inch EP with demos and a nice free download.
Hoorah for Ra Ra Riot for making some very intelligent and fun modern pop music! I'm looking forward to more from these folks in the future.Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com