Allen Chiu | Staff PhotographerPulp
Digital letdown: Ra Ra Riot leaves its Baroque sound, but only achieves awkward robotic results
When 3-1-5 natives Ra Ra Riot performed in Syracuse last semester, Rebecca Zeller, the band’s violinist, commented on the group’s upcoming album title, “Beta Love.” She said the concept described “the first love program for an android,” and boy, she wasn’t kidding.
As a concept album, “Beta Love” almost works, and works perfectly: it’s every bit as clunky, stiff and robotic as it would be watching the Terminator try to find love. But as a Ra Ra Riot album following two fantastic baroque-pop releases? Well, it’s still clunky, stiff and robotic.
On paper, it’s an album that should work. Singer Wes Miles cut his electronic teeth on 2009’s fantastic “Discovery,” an electronic-pop side project with Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend. But opener “Dance With Me” is all sugar and no substance. Miles bumbles through some falsetto runs over chirpy synthesizers, a saccharine mess of overproduction and thumping bass.
But that’s before the album’s concept really kicks in. The first notes of “Binary Mind” sound like a demo Styx might have cut for “Mr. Roboto,” and even a flurry of hand claps and dizzyingly danceable beats can’t keep Ra Ra Riot from laying on the robot talk. After Miles croons, “It’s a technocratic future world,” it’s hard not to expect the rest of the band to join in on a chorus of “domo arigato.”
A robot falling in love is kind of a silly concept for an album, especially considering the only great robot love song is Daft Punk’s “Digital Love.” So even though the title track is an infectious arrangement of strings and synth, it’s hard to take Miles seriously when he sings lines like “I might be a prototype, but we’re both real inside” and “In this city of robot hearts, ours were meant to be.”
It’s a shame, because “Dance With Me” aside, Miles has never sounded better. “Is It Too Much,” in its entire minimalistic splendor, could slide seamlessly into Discovery’s “LP,” and “Angel Please” is the best ‘80s pop song to come out in 2013. There are flashes of promise there — quick ones, but they’re there — that prove it was a smart move for Ra Ra Riot to ditch baroque indie pop for a foray into electronics.
But the switch from subtle, slow indie to going harder, better, faster and stronger is still positively head-scratching. “For Once” muddles itself in weak production, with its instrumentals jumbling together in a glitchy mess. And Ra Ra Riot should’ve scratched “What I Do For U” from the final product — dubstep bass, howling vocals and all.
Even with a confectionary, toe-tapping closer like the bubbly “I Shut Off,” this hulking android of an album powers down clumsily. “That Much” takes one too many pages from an A-ha songbook, “Wilderness” can’t quite decide what to do with its dysfunctional, looping beats and “When I Dream” is a whimpering affair with a bass line that sounds suspiciously like the 808s in Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown.”
“Beta Love” is the wrong album at the wrong time for Ra Ra Riot. Fans might blame the loss of cellist Alexandra Lawn on the drop-off in quality, but they’d be wrong. The problem is that “Beta Love” plants itself in an imaginary world where robots fall in love like awkward teenagers and the synthesizer didn’t go out of style after the ‘80s died. The album concept is laid on thick with technobabble to the point of just sounding goofy, and despite predicting a “technocratic future world,” Ra Ra Riot’s sound is mired in the past.
Domo arigato for the effort, Ra Ra Riot, but next time, if it’s baroque, don’t fix it.
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