Ra Ra Riot aren’t the same band they were an album ago. Literally: their third LP marks the departure of founding cellist Alexandra Lawn, and with a session drummer filling in the percussive blanks, the band has stripped down its quintessential sound quite a bit.
The feeling on Beta Love is of a humble indie band transforming into more of an arena-ready indie pop act. While those baroque walls of strings were the driving melodic forces behind songs appearing on RRR’s last two albums, here they are subdued to a point of near-novelty, while simple keyboard riffs and pop/hip-hop-friendly beats and bass-drops show up in increasing numbers (listen to ‘What I Do for U’ to hear a song designed specifically for cars with big rims and even bigger subwoofers).
But pop-radio metamorphosis hasn’t been fully achieved, and there are plenty of moments where pure beauty shines through. Not coincidentally, these are the songs most evocative of their indie baroque-pop roots. The title track is definitely a stand-out. In it, the infectious throb and tug of a bass-and-keyboard-led hook recontextualises Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al‘ for a modern era. In the chorus, singer Wes Miles sings “You will be my beta love” in a squiggled-out falsetto that suggests Passion Pit if they had a more effective instrument diversity programme.
The formula is repeated on ‘Angel, Please’ which incorporates some more guitar and more playful strings that remind us why this band fares best when it doesn’t completely relinquish its organic assets (‘For Once’ is another solid example of the latter). What Ra Ra Riot do very well is make catchy music and craft emotionally-striking hooks out of materials increasingly regarded in the mainstream as being anachronistic. The band’s new-via-old pop songwriting style shows up again in the cloying ‘That Much’, a party of layers which sounds like they managed to secure access to Darryl Hall’s recording studio, Private Eyes-era Hall and Oates lending vital ingredients to the mix.
Sure, embracing popular trends is a quick means to commercial viability, and can be tempting in a world that insists upon slamming doors on actual musicians. And many indie bands have found the merits in not going for broke: bands like fun. and Vampire Weekend who have proven successful in marrying hand-crafted indie eclecticism and modern pop convention. But in their ascent to mainstream accolade, and even Grammy recognition, they have positioned themselves in a space that jeopardises the integrity of their music – to where it becomes no longer a dinner party of unique voices, a safe-haven from stylistic assimilation, but simply one more in the same. Ra Ra Riot could easily slingshot themselves to mainstream success by doing so, but at what cost?
The concept of Beta Love is a decidedly futuristic one , inspired by such sci-fi authors as William Gibson and Ray Kurzweil, so it makes sense thematically that the music itself embraces the artificial, predicting a mostly inorganic, lifeless and programmeable future of music. Also fitting are the robotic pulses of songs like ‘Binary Mind’ and ‘I Shut Off’, provided by session drummer Josh Freese, who is actually a member of the current Devo ensemble. This envisioned landscape just so happens to be much more inhospitable towards violins, cellos, and other physically-played instruments. And while lyrics describing a “city of robot hearts” may befit themes concerning a dystopian loss of individualism, the music can do this as well, when songs like ‘Wilderness’, ‘Beta Love’ and ‘What I Do for U’ adopt techniques that feature in much of the Top 40.
The question is whether the relativity of the social commentary to the soundtrack beneath is intentional or not. There seems to be enough of a beating heart beneath the silicon and copper wires to suggest this is not yet a band of cyborgs. But even with robots, you can never tell for certain when they’re joking.