The world of Ra Ra Riot has changed drastically since the band’s formation back in 2006 on the campus of Syracuse University. What began as nothing more than a series of house parties rapidly grew into something exponentially larger, as the band unsuspectingly found itself the holder of coveted slots at both CMJ and SXSW before 2007 had come to pass. Suddenly, indie hipsters were gushing over the group’s chamber pop aesthetic and literate songwriting bent; the future was looking bright indeed, though the tragic death of drummer John Pike and stylistic similarities with Vampire Weekend inevitably stalled any sense of ascendancy. Regardless, Ra Ra Riot’s The Rhumb Line was met with nearly universal critical acclaim from fans and critics alike when it hit shelves in the late summer of 2008. With a well-received debut to their name and fresh resolve to press on despite Pike’s absence behind the kit, frontman Wesley Miles and his compatriots spent the better part of a year on the road, which included a slot at the 2009 Lollapalooza Festival and opportunities for mingling with acts like Death Cab for Cutie and the aforementioned prepsters from Columbia.
Four whirlwind years in the books, Miles – along with bandmates Rebecca Zeller, Alexandra Lawn, Mathieu Santos, and Milo Bonacci – decided to ensconce themselves on a pastoral orchard in upstate New York for the songwriting and recording of their sophomore follow-up, unimaginatively titled The Orchard. This record, much like its predecessor, is a highly polished and taut set of baroque pop, though its clear that a few years of non-stop touring has elevated the band’s technical facilities to new levels of prowess. Mathieu Santos’s Paul McCartney-influenced bass lines astound from beginning to end, and drummer Gabriel Duquette (who has yet to receive full band tenure) does a remarkable job of balancing killer grooves with subtle textural flourishes. Given the relatively short turnaround between their first and second records, it’s a testament to the band’s creative impulses that The Orchard never feels phoned in; ironically, it occasionally suffers from being a little too fastidious, which ultimately means the spunk of Rhumb Line has been partially eschewed in favor of more romantic and melancholic notions.
Though a perfectly enjoyable record on the whole, The Orchard does feel front-loaded, with the first five tracks pulling the biggest punches. Things kick off with the lamenting title track, which pairs staccato harmonies from the string section with crystalline vocals and hyper-melodic bass playing. Absent of percussion and bursting with lush string arrangements, the song plays like a tentative epilogue to something bigger as Miles wails, “My body aches.” “Boy” is probably a more affecting means of introduction, as the band turns up the exuberance for an insanely catchy dance tune of rubbery bass, sparsely applied guitar countermelodies, and vocals that effortlessly soar to the rafters. “Too Dramatic” and “Foolish” work in conjunction with one another through the recounting of interpersonal conflict, though the flurry of tambourine and falsetto vocals in the former serves as a wonderful juxtaposition to the downtrodden chug of the latter.
The album’s centerpiece comes in the form of “Massachusetts,” a slightly overlong jam that features some of the album’s most infectious grooves and melodies. The tone of the song suggests that California might be a more apropos state for such blissful and summery sentiments, but the tune is so irresistible that it wouldn’t matter if they were singing about New Jersey; the coastal reverie is palpable, especially with lyrics like, “The younger of the ocean sing / a paean to their mother offering.” Of particular note are the performances of violinist Rebecca Zeller, cellist Alexandra Lawn, and Bonacci, who work their instruments with a deft sense of minimalism and remarkable sensitivity toward one another.
Orchard’s last half isn’t a disappointment, but it fails to take advantage of the momentum generated from the first five tracks. “Shadowcasting,” despite its more predictable song structure, excels because of its soaring chorus (“Oh / hope that I don’t see you anymore / I won’t”) and dulcet string work from the ladies of the group. Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend takes on songwriting duties for “Do You Remember,” which imbues a rather sparsely arranged rock tune with some gorgeous boys’ choir overdubs and wispy cello and violin passages.
Fans of The Rhumb Line are unlikely to go head over heels for The Orchard, but Ra Ra Riot’s latest is still among the most clever and thoughtful indie pop heard this year. If nothing else, it’s a joy to hear how uncannily restrained a six-piece rock band with two string players can be; The Orchard has all ingredients necessary for gratuitous bombast, but it never gives in.