Ra Ra Riot Ra Ra RiotThe Orchard
When Ra Ra Riot released “The Rhumb Line” (Barsuk, 2008), the only plausible feeling was celebration: after the tragic death of front man and main composer, John Pike, it remained to be seen whether the band could keep going, maintaining the virtues of the sound they presented with the EP “Ra Ra Riot” (Rebel Group, 2007)—and it could. Taking advantage of the remaining kinetic energy that Pike had given to his compositions (in fact, that first album included almost all of the songs on the EP), Ra Ra Riot’s coming out explored the same soundscapes, without any really outstanding peak, but especially without stopping too much in the valleys that had an unhealthy air. The lay of the land, sound-wise, was clear: a leafy, optimistic exaltation of chamber pop in the line of Vampire Weekend, less globetrotting than usual, a classic multi-instrumental jungle epic, following in the wake of Arcade Fire. With these coordinates on the compass, it was easy not to lose your way. But now we come to the (difficult) second album. This is the final exam that we journalists like so much: the perfecto moment to find out whether once the tide has washed away the traces of John Pike, Ra Ra Riot is capable of continuing to write in the sand with their feet bare and their cheeks blushing. Listening to “The Orchard”, however, is something like watching someone languidly tracing lines on the beach at dusk. That is the thing about languidness: sometimes it’s beautiful, and other times it’s just dispassionate. When Wesley Miles and company hit the nail on the head, it seems like the sun shines brighter and the sky is bluer: the disarming beauty of the past-perfect opening with “ The Orchard”, a nocturnal song in which the violins breathe a tragedy against which Miles struggles, knowing that there is no room for victory; the low rustling of “ Boy,” which is so The Cure, bears up a structure that oozes optimism. “ Too Dramatic” discovers a delicious mountain (bursting with greenery and filled with the smell of wild flowers) in the geography of multi-instrumental pop mentioned above; and “ You and I Know”, with the voice of Alexandra Lawn looking at the latest The Magic Numbers on the downward slide, bridging into Fleetwood Mac territory, becomes the band’s refreshing, exciting look into new territories beyond the beach, beyond the forest, beyond the mountains and the valleys. A look that is staring directly at the darkness that beats between the shining of two stars.
But in spite of everything, what abounds in “The Orchard” are ghostly suits of armour: real-looking coats of armour that, nevertheless, contain only the spectre of emptiness. They are songs that sound good, but rarely passionate. It’s interesting to notice that when the new Ra Ra Riot sounds the most genuine is precisely when they aren’t trying to imitate their past sound: “The Orchard” and “You and I Know” are more vigorous for the freezing wind that blows in from that “ Winter ‘05” with which in “The Rhumb Line” they already showed that not everything would be optimism and vitality, that they knew how to get around what was expected of them (in fact, that was one of the few original songs that in the debut managed to escape from Pike’s shadow, even though it was a sort of obituary that the group dedicated to its former leader).
“The Orchard” can be considered precisely that, a garden in which Ra Ra Riot has planted new and old seeds, waiting to see what would come up. Genetically-engineered food? Ultrasonic crossbreeds that will really take off on the black market? Let’s hope that for the third album, they look closely at the crop and realise that maybe without Pike at the head of the group, they should make less of an effort to sound like the lost friend and more of an effort to find a new sound that could be their Rosetta stone in the contagious “ Do You Remember?”, a song that fits in perfectly with the hyper-mineralisation of their old optimistic sound and the night-wandering good qualities of their new discoveries (with the aforementioned “You and I Know” at the head). The future is already planted in this garden of “The Orchard”. Now it depends on how Ra Ra Riot decides they want their plants to grow: based on pesticides and chemical agents left to them by a dead relative, or with the sincerity of using only the resources that they have on hand.
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