Pretty much everything you can read on the Interweb about Syracuse, New York, band Ra Ra Riot begins with a tragic story: In 2007, after playing a show in Providence, Rhode Island, Ra Ra Riot drummer and lyricist John Pike drowned off the coast of Massachusetts.
"It's definitely a huge part of our history, and he was hugely influential in the music and songwriting and everything, so it's hard not to talk about that," said Ra Ra Riot guitarist Milo Bonacci.
Placed in this context, The Rhumb Line, Ra Ra Riot's debut full-length on Barsuk, seems almost elegiac at first glance: "St. Peter's Day Festival" begins with the line, If I go to Gloucester, I know I will wait there for you/The Rhumb Line is waiting there, too. Then there's "Dying Is Fine," with its musical adaptation of e.e. cummings' poem "dying is fine)but Death": dying is fine but maybe/I wouldn't like death if death were good.
However, the fact is that Pike himself wrote those lyrics — and Ra Ra Riot's music, a blend of chamber orchestra, rock and dance pop, is much more than the story of one member.
"It's only in recent history that [the songs have] been re-contextualized and taken on an alternate meaning," said Bonacci. "People just try to draw connections, even though all of these songs were written before all that happened."
The Rhumb Line, named after a bar in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is ten songs packed with choral harmonies, dramatic strings (violin and cello, specifically), pulsing rhythms, poetic lyrics delivered by vocalist Wesley Miles, heartbreak, and rapture. A comparison to the Arcade Fire seems apt for the first four minutes of The Rhumb Line ("Ghost Under Rocks"), but then "Each Year" brings in a vibe more in the New Order realm. A Kate Bush song — "Suspended in Gaffa" — works into Ra Ra Riot's aesthetic perfectly, and "Winter '05," with its chorus of, If you were here/winter wouldn't pass quite so slow, can easily take its place in a long line of classic love songs.
And those "elegiac" songs? They're the poppiest rockers on the record: "Dying Is Fine" even has its own twist on a slow-fast-slow structure.
Ra Ra Riot is a collaborative band through and through: This is why the loss of one member is unsettlingly traumatic, but it's also why Ra Ra Riot can move on.
"John and Wes, for the most part, wrote lyrics together, or a couple of songs were mainly John or mainly Wes. Now, obviously, it's all Wes who's writing the lyrics," explained Bonacci. "The way we would be able to get feedback from each other and come up with ideas has changed, because one of the members is no longer with us, but it's different people now giving input and opinions. The songs are obviously going to develop in a different way."
It's evident from a song like "Oh, La" that Ra Ra Riot carefully decides which instruments will play what when: With six different instruments on every song, this balance is important.
"Since there are so many melodic instruments, we do have to sort of step aside from time to time to make room for the other people," said Bonacci. "That's something we try to pay a lot of attention to — we don't want to clutter the mix up with too many independent melodies or anything like that."
On "Oh, La," Alexandra Lawn's cello and Rebecca Zeller's violin play the dominant chords as Mathieu Santos' bass and Bonacci's guitar stay mostly in the background — but when Miles' voice comes in, the strings fall back, and the cello steps forward. The guitar gets its moment in the spotlight halfway through, playing a melody that slides between Lawn and Zeller's strings, and the drums start and stop, carefully enhancing the rhythm only where it feels right.
Part of the allure of Ra Ra Riot's music is this careful balance between instruments, but the violin and cello are front and center more often than the guitar or bass. Using violin and cello to carry a hefty portion of melody is what gives Ra Ra Riot its own sound. The strings are crisp and technically proficient, which gives even the most straightforward rock song a layer of complexity. While violins and cellos are often used by other bands to add drama or melancholy, Ra Ra Riot uses its stringed instruments to add excitement and exuberance — just listen to how the cello jumps up and down at the end of "Run My Mouth" for a good example.
All of this is why it's hard to pinpoint Ra Ra Riot's sound by comparing it to one or two bands or a certain genre of music: It's too subtle to be rock, and too loud and happy to be another precious indie-rock orchestral-pop project. Bonacci said that when he's asked to describe what kind of music Ra Ra Riot plays, he usually says, "We're a rock band with string players."
But, he added, "It's hard to say that, though, because obviously, the string players, Allie and Rebecca, are a significant part of the music — they're not an afterthought or anything."
Actually, nothing is an afterthought on The Rhumb Line — even the songs that seem to speak to their bandmate's death were a long time in the making, some dating back to the band's first, self-titled EP in 2007. The band formed in early 2006 while the members were still students at Syracuse University, and with so much history already, the fact that their songs are the result of a slow and thoughtful stewing process means that Ra Ra Riot have only begun to show us what they're capable of.
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