Any new band in the music scene can testify that sophomore albums can be tricky. Add a death of a band member and you’ve got yourself a bit of a conundrum. The Syracuse-based indie rock band, Ra Ra Riot, can attest to these difficulties. After their successful first year in the business, the band’s drummer, John Pike, was found dead in Buzzards Bay, off the southeast coast of Massachusetts. While the rest of the band went on to release their debut album, “The Rhumb Line,” to considerable acclaim, it’s understood that the group went through some big changes before they released their second album, “The Orchard,” in late August.
As Wes Miles, the band’s lead vocalist said last week on NPR’s World Cafe, ‘[Late drummer John Pike] had a lot of influence on writing melodies and lyrics.’ The band acknowledged that without Pike, writing and recording “The Orchard” was an emotional and musical challenge.
And while some bands counter personal tragedies with musical greatness (Arcade Fire’s Funeral, anyone?), Ra Ra Riot’s efforts with The Orchard fell short of “The Rhumb Line.” Specifically, the cheerful chamber pop of “The Rhumb Line’s” failed to fully translate, resulting in a lack of musical focus in “The Orchard.”
To promote their new album, Ra Ra Riot embarked on a North American tour for which they stopped in Boston’s Royale on October 1, 2010. Despite the anticlimax of “The Orchard,” I attended the show to see if Ra Ra Riot’s performances are as energetic and fun as their fans claim. As I was with their new album, I was quite underwhelmed.
Though they played a good mix of old and new songs, I found the performance to be rather dull. And despite the fact that Miles announced that the band was excited to perform in Boston, their act wasn’t very convincing. While several favorites (‘St. Peter’s Day Festival,’ ‘Can You Tell‘) and a couple new songs (‘Boy,’ ‘You and I Know‘) excited the crowd and got my blood moving, the majority of the band’s performance felt a bit uninspired.
Ra Ra Riot sound is characterized by their stirring string section, but I felt that only half of that section delivered. While cellist Alexandra Lawn contributed to the rousing melodies of ‘Can You Tell’ and ‘Oh, La‘ violinist Rebecca Zeller’s performance was relatively tepid. In fact, with a predictable and repetitive violin part, Zeller’s contributions to the performance seemed to be a bit of an afterthought compared to the rest of the band’s.
The show was held at The Royale, Boston’s newest nightclub. The trendy joint a couple blocks south of the Park Street T station went for the clash of the old and new with flashy chandeliers and a downstairs jazz bar. However, compared to older venues in Boston, this rookie place lacked character. Ra Ra Riot’s performance was held up by several technical difficulties involving the sound on Mathieu Santos’ bass. These hiccups in performance, coupled with the stage’s freakishly bright lights, distracted both the band and the audience.
Overall, the show was quite stagnant. The upside of the night was Lawn’s switch from cellist to lead vocalist on the emotive ballad ‘You and I Know.’ The downside was hearing Miles apologize multiple times to the audience that his band was performing so early. As an audience member, I didn’t want to be reminded that I was spending the better part of my night at a listless performance. Instead, I wanted Miles and the rest of Ra Ra Riot to prove why I should be excited to be there.
If you want to get a taste of Ra Ra Riot’s new album ‘The Orchard’ but don’t want to go to a show, check out the documentary filmed about the making of their second album.
Setlist (Highlights are linked)
1. The Orchard
5. Oh, La
6. Can You Tell
10. Saccharin and the War (Sparks cover)
11. Ghost Under Rocks
12. Too Too Too Fast
13. Too Dramatic
14. Dying Is Fine
16. Run Your Mouth Off