Orchestral pop is a difficult genre of music to deal with. Unless you’re totally clumsy and don’t know how to properly piece together a string section, chances are your songs are going to sound beautiful. That’s step one. Step two is being able to advance beyond that to craft hooks and compelling melodies that are more than just fluff. It’s a big reason why there aren’t a ton of orchestral pop bands receiving crazy hype all the time, and when one does it tends to be pretty special. Ra Ra Riot earned themselves some strong mentions in 2008 with the release of their debut album ‘The Rhumb Line”. One could argue that they benefited from a strong friendship with the guys from Vampire Weekend, but the reality is that only got their foot in the door, and the album was them stepping through it. They made susprisingly unmessy, fun and addictive orchestral pop, with a hint of that Vampire Weekend charm as well, and it worked like a charm. After a long cycle of touring, the band went straight back into the studio to record their sophmore record “The Orchard”, which is out this week.
Cello and bass slide you into “The Orchard” gracefully, as the title track moves along at a gorgeous but relatively slow pace. There’s no hook to be found, but boy does it sound amazing. Drums, bass and flute make up the core of first single “Boy”, which is a fast-paced and fun little toe-tapper that’d be one of the album’s strongest if it had a better hook. “Too Dramatic” does deliver when it comes to a catchy chorus, but the rest of it feels plain and built solely to service the hook. In other words, it’s half of a good song. Elsewhere, “Massachusettes” comes across like it was handed to them from their buddies in Vampire Weekend who were initially considering turning it into a b-side. If you want to hear a track that captures everything Ra Ra Riot does best, be sure to check out “Shadowcasting”. That song alone makes most of what comes before it almost worthwhile. The final three tracks that come after it though are a bit underwhelming and mediocre, as if the band is content to just make serviceable songs and not great ones.
Ra Ra Riot is not a bad band. They’ve proven they can make highly compelling orchestral pop on “The Rhumb Line”, but suddently with “The Orchard” it’s like they lost the plot. They are trying a few new things here, possibly sacrificing great songs in the process. Perhaps it’s best to view this album as a necessary growing pain, the product of a band that’s rapidly changing and looking for the next evolution of their sound. Unfortunately it comes off like people trying to do everyday tasks in pitch black darkness – clumsy and uneven. The couple songs that survive the tangled mess come off especially well, but 2-3 good songs do not make for a great album. Hopefully for the next one Ra Ra Riot finds that right forward momentum to craft a record once again solid from top to bottom.