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Art-pop sorts are often accused of fumbling the ratio of intelligence to intuition, but this Syracuse outfit dodged such slap-downs on their 2008 debut album, The Rhumb Line, transcending their over-eagerness by buzzing like a baroque Vampire Weekend with a jones for the artier ends of 1980s British pop. On a more chamber-pop-styled second album, though, the balance proves trickier to sustain. Accomplished and impressive as it is, The Orchard equally often feels studied, its core parts fussed over at the expense of the lyrical and melodic shapes needed to energise them.
At its frontloaded best, between the title-track’s softly sumptuous reverie and Boy’s fleet-footed dance-pop, dynamism and detail are amply displayed. Earning his salary plus overtime, Mathieu Santos never stops doing something ace on bass, elaborating in the title-track’s spaces and bubbling with RSI-threatening vim on Boy. Tender percussive textures are complemented by Milo Bonacci’s guitar, which dances nimbly around the melodies. On top, Wes Miles’ vocals sound as fresh as a peach plucked from the orchard the album was written in, his sometimes misfiring delivery on The Rhumb Line evolving with softly yearning prettiness.
Yet prettiness pales without purpose and thrust. Hinged on romance slumped, his lyrics languish in a distancing fog of apologetic resignation: "My life is dull"; "I won’t waste any more of your time". Alexandra Lawn and Rebecca Zeller’s strings sometimes restrain rather than liberate the songs, roadside views that obscure any sense of destination. The album’s tail-end decline likewise implies a lack of direction, the slump setting in on Shadowcasting and sticking until Keep It Quiet closes the album on the whimper its title suggests.
Riot are better when they ditch reserve to do something unguarded, like the 1980s-ish synth-chord flushes of Foolish or the push-pull of Lawn’s husky vocal to Bonacci’s sparking guitar on dusky album peak You and I Know. That pairing resembles Fleetwood Mac and Journey seen through Dirty Projectors’ lens, an unlikely mix that Ra Ra Riot nonetheless pack art-pop chops enough to nail. They aren’t for writing off, then, but they need to let their instincts do the thinking.
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