On Jan. 22, New York-based indie band Ra Ra Riot released their third studio album, Beta Love. As a band who has already undergone a variety of change — first with the death of drummer John Pike, and more recently with the departure of cellist and founding member, Alexandra Lawn — Ra Ra Riot has embraced these transitions; with Beta Love, their sound has donned a new identity. Inspired by the works of sci-fi fiction writer William Gibson and futurist writer Ray Kurzweil, Beta Love tones down almost entirely the chamber-indie-pop Ra Ra Riot was known for; it opts instead for sounds of synth-pop and robots. Although the album contains individually strong tracks with catchy, toe-tapping riffs and vocals, the overall impact comes off underwhelming and repetitive.
The opening track, “Dance With Me,” sets the tone and structure for the rest of the album — sad lyrics superimposed onto catchy, fast-paced pop songs. It begins with singer-frontman Wes Miles emphatically crooning, “I most, I mostly feel like I had a good day,” over quiet keyboards, before the song takes off as he finishes his thought: “It wasn’t that great.” The song takes “loneliness” and places it alongside hard percussion and upbeat dance rhythms.
The following track, “Binary Mind,” follows suit in sound and rhythm with sharp drums, quick tempos, and an overpowering synthesizer reminiscent of 80s pop anthems. However, this sound quickly becomes tiresome.
Nevertheless, throughout the album, especially on the title track, “Beta Love,” Wes Miles showcases stronger vocals than he ever has on Ra Ra Riot’s previous endeavors. He uses his range to the best of its abilities, transitioning from a strong tenor to an ethereal falsetto.
However, Beta Love’s strongest points occur when quick tempos are switched out for smoother, softer cadences, such as on the tracks “Is It Too Much” and the album’s second single, “When I Dream.”
“Is It Too Much” starts off with muzak-infused keyboard sounds as Miles whispers, “Elevator down.” A relic of Ra Ra Riot’s former sound surfaces amidst the muted piano melody and a steady drum, as Rebecca Zeller’s swelling violin emerges from crashing synths. The juxtaposition of Miles’ staccato voice with the languid violin unravels beautifully through the song and offers a pause from stagnant quick tempos and riffs, which return for the rest of the album.
Despite its weaknesses, Beta Love provides a new creative direction for Ra Ra Riot. Whether they decide to continue on the path of the synth or veer off elsewhere, the band at least has options, and is no longer solely identified with melancholic string arrangements, no matter how good those arrangements once were.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of January 31st, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.