Formed a couple of years ago in New York State, Ra Ra Riot build on the early promise of an eponymous EP with a new full length album, 'The Rhumb Line'.
The first thing that strikes you on the album is the consistent use of string arrangements. The violin and cello, from Zeller and Lawn respectively, transform each song into a delicious slice of chamber-pop and at its most simple (the Beatles-esque 'Winter '05' for example), the effect works incredibly well. But when there is a juxtaposition of guitar-driven indie and orchestral backing, the contrast can split a song in two - and coupled with the unstructured and wavering vocal style of Wes Miles, initially it can be a frustrating listen.
'The Rhumb Line' has at its core the wondrous 'Dying Is Fine', an obvious tribute to former drummer John Pike who died in 2007. It is a great example of how everything comes together as one - when the strings build with a minute and a half to go, rising above the guitars and drums to bring back Miles, it marks a distinct highlight. The uneasy mix of upbeat music and dour subject matter adds to the feel. This sentiment continues later with the string laden 'Oh, La' and the chorus: "We've got a lot to learn from each other, we have got to stick together". After tragedy is hope.
Opening song 'Ghost Under Rocks' suffers from a very loose vocal arrangement and drum track. Most of the time the strings are swamped by everything else and only when the song settles into the final stretch - the gorgeous combination of vocals and delicate backing - does the strength immerge. The chorus is expertly arranged to be both obvious and original. It becomes another fine example of the band working together. Likewise album closer 'Run My Mouth' is a compelling journey - a simple chorus framed by swirling arrangements and Miles on top form.
Elsewhere the band expands their core sound. 'Too Too Too Fast' is mesmerising electro-pop fronted by Johnny Borrell, with a Human League quality - female backing vocals, elegant strings and lush keyboards. The feminine touch washes through the entire album but never more so than here. The best thing about 'Each Year' is the ever-present guitar melody and remains an odd choice for an early single. Kate Bush cover 'Suspended In Gaffa' is a stupendously brave attempt to do something a bit different - complete with kooky verses, talky bits and a swinging chorus. A fine tribute the band just about gets away with.
Ultimately 'The Rhumb Line' is an accomplished piece of work - always interesting and never overstaying its welcome. The combination of instrumentation and styles quickly moves from frustration to delight as hidden depths are revealed at every string soaked twist and turn.
Released on 29th September 2008 on V2/Co-Op.
-- CS (for Last Broadcast)