Sometime during the run-up to the release of Ra Ra Riot’s new album, I read that they somehow moved upwards of 60,000 copies of their debut record, an eminently un-shabby amount in this post-torrent era. 2007’s The Rhumb Line was hardly a weak record, but it was twee and liberally artsy both characteristically and in terms of content. Featured on that album (following an earlier Daytrotter version) was a cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended In Gaffa,” which, while inferior to the original, signaled toward a potential direction for the future. As overtly dramatic as The Rhumb Line was throughout, the recordings sounded flat, and the arrangements were hardly as precise or polished as would have best suited the material, never matching the standard set by albums like The Kick Inside or Hounds of Love. Still, that emotional excitability, that shaggy looseness, struck a nerve, and Ra Ra Riot attracted a larger following than they could have anticipated.
And now I wonder what all those people who embraced The Rhumb Line would make of its follow-up, The Orchard. Though hardly a radical departure from the baroque-pop template set by that debut, The Orchard is more mannered, fussy, and prim than its predecessor, exact and instrumentally articulate in ways that evoke no one more than Ms. Bush. The success of the record is due as much to lead singer Wes Miles and violinist Rebecca Zeller as it is to Chris Walla, who mixed nine of The Orchard’s 10 tracks in such a way that feels like a rich and cohesive whole. Which isn’t to say that the members of Ra Ra Riot are somehow less deserving of credit for The Orchard’s unified sound than Walla; no, Ra Ra Riot are more developed — muscular, if not yet fully matured — than they had been the last time around; they also have success on their side, granting them access to better equipment and a stronger support system.
Their newfound confidence is obvious from the start; on the drum- and guitar-less title track, the band plucks mercilessly at heartstrings while tempering the dramatics with a healthy measure of restraint. Without Mathieu Santos’ rippling bass playing, the song would be more of a chamber piece than an effective pop album preface. As is, “The Orchard” — both song and album — is sequenced perfectly, feeding straight into “Boy,” the album’s breathlessly exuberant lead single. Miles’ vocals are as chipper and fey as ever, but, anchored by its massive arena-rock drums (and that crisp, barreling bass), “Boy” feels anything but tentative or uncertain. That confidence extends through The Orchard’s whole front half. “Too Dramatic” might have little shot at cracking the modern rock charts, but it feels like a convincing throwback to an older era of alternative pop, with retro synth riffs complementing Zeller’s insistent violin perfectly. Closing out the album’s first half, the reggae-leaning “Massachusetts” might have been better suited to their friends in Vampire Weekend, but its greatest offenses are its nearly six-minute length and its inability to draw upon any strong emotional undercurrents.
The remainder of The Orchard is perhaps less memorable, but no less pleasing. “You And I Know” is a clear highlight, and not only because of the respite it offers from Miles’ unique, and at times irritating, vocal style. “You And I Know” is Ra Ra Riot at their most stripped-down, but also at their most exquisitely brutal; it sounds like a bruise, with small edges of color bleeding out from the tortured central melody. Stepping out from behind her cello, Alexandra Lawn’s moody and minimalist phrasing feels less affected than Miles’, and — despite what she clearly lacks in training — her voice leaves a firm, unshakable impression. The song’s emphasis on woozy synthesizer and its gradual build from quiet storm to disquiet squall bring certain sections of modern R&B to mind. It isn’t the only place where that particular influence can be felt. The reliance on instrumental interplay and exchange, dynamics of melody, grand emotionality, the confidence inherent in the songwriting economy, and the flawless clarity of the production appear to prove that Miles’ interest in R&B as a genre extends far deeper than the canny, calculated dabbling of Discovery, Ra Ra Riot’s side-project with Vampire Weekend. The twinkling piano twist that closes out the otherwise rollicking “Kansai” is more likely to have been lifted from The-Dream than from The Dreaming.
Despite its slender length, The Orchard can be trying at times. Neither the melodies — lacking in variety — nor the incessant brightness of the recordings offer much space for nesting, couching, or hiding. The Orchard feels less personal than The Rhumb Line, but the artifice of the album is itself commendable; even if they prove to be less than fully penetrating, these 10 songs’ luminous facades are more than glorious enough to absolve the album’s occasional prosaism. Whatever depth is lacking, Ra Ra Riot have nevertheless grown more distinctive and accomplished this time around, carving out a clear niche. The Orchard is a terrific record, a significant improvement for an already prodigious young group, and one that will no doubt bolster the ranks of their already sizable following.