Ra Ra Riot, ‘Beta Love’ (Barsuk)
Release Date: January 25, 2013
Was it necessary to hit the panic button so soon? On their captivating 2008 debut The Rhumb Line and 2010’s milder The Orchard, the Syracuse, New York-spawned Ra Ra Riot crafted nimble chamber pop with the soaring energy of a rousing stadium anthem, minus the thudding insistence. But apparently, finesse doesn’t matter now. Whether they’re impatient for the mass audience of a bigger, louder band like fun. or just suffering a crisis of confidence, the slimmed-down quartet (having shed one of two string players) no longer trust their own material on Beta Love. By recruiting producer Dennis Herring (Wavves, Elvis Costello) for this jarring, grating third outing, the band resorts to an in-your-face attack that bears a strong whiff of desperation.
More frustrating still are the hints that these guys can still deliver a stellar album — this just isn’t it. Although frontman Wes Miles’ high, yearning voice has a familiar sensitive-dude vulnerability, there’s a tougher undercurrent here to his arresting performances that suggests emotional complexities beyond the obvious. Setting his eerie crooning to a heartbreaking melody, “When I Dream” embodies gorgeous, terminal melancholy, while the surging “Angel, Please” hitches his appealing wail to an irresistible chorus. But mostly, Miles competes with cluttered arrangements and belligerent electro-beats that have all the charm of a punch of the nose. Despite intriguing, Ray Kurzweil-inspired sci-fi lyrics about transcending the body and trying to “forget how lonely feels,” the jittery “Binary Mind” feels like a numbing anime soundtrack, unleashing a wave of nervous energy more likely to induce random tics than cosmic insight.
Elsewhere, when Miles throws modesty to the winds and struts his stuff in a theoretically old-school way, the results are odder still, as though he’s awkwardly trying to win over a disinterested listener. The slinky “What I Do for U” begins with a showy, strangled falsetto — cribbed from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” perhaps — then subjects his voice to a battery of unsatisfying effects, evoking Brit Jamie Liddell’s attempts to fuse traditional and automated R&B. But the peppy “That Much” best epitomizes what’s both tantalizing and irritating about Beta Love. Miles gets more space than usual to croon without excessive production interference, and he delivers a pleasant echo of Hall & Oates’ buoyant pop-soul, while guitarist Milo Bonacci ups the ante with an exciting riff that morphs into pure delicious noise. But then the track cuts off abruptly mid-note, as if interrupted by a power failure, or maybe just a failure of nerve. Racing through 11 disjointed songs in 30 minutes flat, Ra Ra Riot never give their material a chance to breathe. Instead, we’re left with somewhat impressive ideas, squandered with impressive vigor.