Ra Ra Riot – Beta Love
Arts & Crafts 2013
Clichés suck, but damn if Beta Love doesn’t qualify for the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage. Beta Love itself is sort of a cliché as it is, its music resembling the same kind of rote, brain-dead saying that is force-fed you throughout life at moments that might make you think the dystopian world of Office Space isn’t too far away. The drudgery here isn’t so much a case-of-the-Mondays as a pungent whiff of desperation, a band turning to a genre long since strip-mined to recover some intangible sense of relevance. 2010’s underrated The Orchard was largely ignored by critics and the same fickle public that had made them a buzzworthy group in 2008 and slapped them with a label as crafty and complex as “Vampire Weekend with strings,” yet at least it had soul and feeling, two things that are largely lacking from the mechanical Beta Love. Perhaps the departure of both cellist Alexandra Lawn and drummer Gabe Duquette (the secret ingredient to The Orchard’s success) and various touring struggles necessitated a change, but for much of its running length Beta Love sounds like a half-baked experiment, all knob-fiddling and jagged programming, candied indie-disco hooks that sound tinny and tapped out. It’s not for lack of commitment – Beta Love doubles down hard on an electro-pop sound that comes off as a strong advocate of cheesy ‘80s pop tropes and beating an innocent drum machine to death. Rather, it’s such an abrupt left turn for the band that, for all of its relentlessly chipper four-on-the-floor ecstasy and an ADD ethos that is almost Euro in its manic intensity, it sounds like a fake-out, a grinning rictus for the cameras and the blogs.
The songwriting is still there, thankfully. Hooks like that on “Binary Mind” and the jittery “Angel Please” bounce out of the speakers and seem to embed themselves in your spine, closely approximating certain party favors these restless tunes seem determined to emulate. The guitar solo that stutters through the feedback and rips itself up before resounding into something resembling a pleasant surprise on “That Much” is just the kind of 8-bit titty-twisting that would have been nice to see the band develop further. Instead, however, the hooks tend to come in one of two flavors, be it the propulsive, ready-made dance-floor hit (the aforementioned “Binary Mind” and the skittish “I Shut Off” are probably the best of these, hectic and unhinged energy that is fun in the moment) or relatively midtempo synth-pop (presumably standing in for what would be ballads on another record). Wes Miles, possessor of one of the finer voices in indie rock, races from one end of the scale to another, alternating campy, fun performances like “Angel Please” with octave-stretching reaches like “Beta Love,” with his voice occasionally approaching an absurd, almost pixie-ish quality. Violinist Rebecca Zeller soldiers on with Lawn gone, yet the splicing in of her parts sound like the hurried addition of a frantic producer or the kind of chintzy effect a regular four-piece might cook up, because, you know, strings and shit. It’s a far cry from the organic textures of the band’s past work, where Zeller and Lawn were no less an essential part of the mix than the guitar and drums. The lyrics, reportedly drawing inspiration from “the works of cyberpunk novelist William Gibson and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s musings on technological singularity and transhumanism,” are just as freshman English as you’d expect, groping for a message while everything else on Beta Love is merely content to just shake its ass.
It’s a disconcerting tonal shift, one that gets lost in its own medium as much as it garbles the message it’s ostensibly trying to make. The songs are still there, those hooks hard to resist, a strong pop foundation that is hard to crack despite the trashy synths reaching critical mass here. Yet it lacks the heart that made The Orchard such a rewarding listen, and with its tacky electro-pop sound may lead them to becoming more indistinguishable than they might have been accused of being before. The result is an unfortunately hollow album, recycled in its sound and empty in its emotion.
Beta Love marks Ra Ra Riot's first outing as a four-piece. Inspired by their lean new lineup (with Wes Miles on vocals, Milo Bonacci on guitar, Mathieu Santos on bass and Rebecca Zeller on violin), the recording process found the band members expanding and re-defining their roles within the new makeup of the group. They built upon demos created mostly by Miles and producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello, Wavves) at Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, MS. Joined by session drummer Josh Freese (Devo, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer) the band enjoyed exploring its potential, experimenting with new influences and exciting sounds.