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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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Top Customer Reviews
The follow up is not as immediately catching as The Rhumb Line but it is still well worth a listen as their musical talents are (again) fully demonstrated on this album.
There are no stand out tracks this time but possibly, the overall album is more pleasing on the ear - if you liked the first one I am sure you will not be disappointed!
It's the only song on which one of the female members of the band sings and it has a haunting sound which builds wonderfully. All the other tracks (with the male singer) sound mostly like 'Delays', so if you're a fan of them then you'll probably like it. If not, still listen to it just for 'you and i know'. If you're Ra Ra Riot, then get rid of matey and base your sound on the aforementioned track, please.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The Orchard - A haunting beginning to an eclectic chamber pop album, The Orchard works as a great intro and a fitting title track. (7/10)
Boy - This rambunctious new single falls into the same camp as their catchy single, "Can You Tell." It's hard not to sing along with the relatable, yelped chorus where Wes shows off his boundless vocal range. It's hard to disagree with this song. (10/10)
Too Dramatic - A live staple turned recording, this song is instantly memorable for its catchy 80's vocal melody (and VERY 80's keyboards). The staccato strings also chop in and out in very precise, deliberate strokes that demand attention. (9/10)
Foolish - This song sounds classic to me. I almost feel like I heard it on the radio at some point a long time ago. That's a very good sign. Everything just fits into place very well on this track. (10/10)
Massachusetts - This overlong white-guy reggae song about Massachusetts falls short both lyrically and musically. It's almost as if this song wanted to be something like "Diplomat's Son" but relied too heavily on repetition. It's not bad if you only listen to it for a couple minutes though. (5/10)
You And I Know - Alexandra Lawn steps up to the mic to make her debut and she croons over the Renaissance Fair-synth with a low, jazzy voice. The ethereal backups that come in and out help round out the song. It's a fine debut indeed. (8/10)
Shadowcasting - This one chugs along at a reasonable pace and seems like it would be perfect for blasting out of your radio while driving around during the summer. (8/10)
Do You Remember - The strings really seem to take center stage in this song. The breakdown with strings only draws attention to their intricacies. This song could very well signal the return of the "soft rock" genre, but in a good way. (8/10)
Kansai - Great drumming throughout, and a bouncy bass line keeps this song fun. I think it needs to grow on me though. (6/10)
Keep It Quiet - This is the album's masterpiece. It begins very minimalistic and then a little more than halfway through, a Vampire Weekend-like guitar riff comes in with the violin and cello, making the song truly heart wrenching. [I recommend everyone also check out the Boy Single version.] (10/10)
Overall, I think this album is a great representation of a band that is great at what they do and feel no need to give into gimmicks just to draw in trendy fair-weather fans.
Thanks for reading!
It's a record that knows that the best way to start an album is not a rookie move like throwing out your best song or first single, but to kick things off with a track that announces a new, determined direction instead. "The Orchard" is just that song, floating along ominous string chords and a pensive bass line without a hint of drums or guitar. The focus is purely on Miles, who sounds like a markedly more assured vocalist throughout the record and never as clearly as he does on "The Orchard." The strings at the forefront is something repeated throughout the album, from the way they add a melancholy note to the otherwise upbeat "Boy" to the way they arch and dip across melodies, putting their indelible stamp on songs like "Do You Remember" and "Kansai." The fact that Zeller and Lawn are the centerpiece of songs rather than a touch of color here or a flourish there makes The Orchard everything The Rhumb Line hinted at but never accomplished: the sound of a complete and full band, utilizing an array of sound and talents in a more organic way than many of their peers.
Not to say that the rest of the band suffers in comparison. Drummer Gabriel Duquette is the unsung hero here, laying down a number of intricate beats that always propel things forward but never overwhelm. Like the National's Bryan Devendorf or Bloc Party's Matt Tong, Duquette has some impressive chops (check out his subtle work on "Massachusetts"), but uses them more to build a rigid rhythmic framework than show off. Everyone contributes, whether it's consistently fantastic rhythm work, airtight melodies and subtler hooks, or Miles letting Lawn on the mic for the excellently Fleetwood Mac-ish "You And I Know." There are a few missteps; seriously cheesy synths midway through "Foolish" mar some perfectly good dream-pop, and the sluggish "Keep It Quiet" ends the album with a whimper rather than a bang. But perhaps that's to be expected - The Orchard is nothing if not a sharp left turn from the cheery, thumping pop of their debut, and ending it on its most plaintive note is sort of fitting. It's also everything I wanted from a sophomore effort: sophisticated, confident, surprisingly layered, and endlessly entertaining. It's always exciting when a band seems to get it and come into their own as a group - with The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot have finally created a distinctive identity all their own.
It seems that Ra Ra Riot intentionally avoided trying to match their previous work, and while it's good to see them avoiding the pitfall of cribbing off their own notes and making new songs indistinguishable from the old, what remains just isn't as inspiring. There are some solid tracks, and Alexandra Lawn's vocals on "You and I Know" are a welcome change of pace, but for the most part, "The Orchard" lacks the fire and passion of their debut. "Massachusetts" is repetitive and pedestrian, and many of the songs don't stick around in the listener's head once they're over. "Boy" is bouncy and fun, but large stretches of the album saunter forward at a languid pace. In measured doses this can work, and if the melodies are lights-out it can excel, but it langours in long doses without the substance to carry the album through.
It's certainly not a bad album, and if this were their first effort it would probably be viewed in a more positive light. Perhaps I'd be intrigued at this band's sound, wondering what a couple years of touring and recording could do to tighten it up. With great success comes great expectations, however, and that's the curse of "The Rhumb Line." Ra Ra Riot gets to live with having made a brilliant first album, and they must now spend the rest of their career figuring out how to match it, or at least come close to recapturing that rapturous magic. Their first follow-up isn't a complete failure, but it isn't really a success, either.
Ra-Ra Riot prove their presence on record store shelves and concert stages to be thoroughly justified with "The Orchard."
This is lo-fi acoustic pop that had edge, bite and verve with organic, fresh instrumentation, solid melodic hooks and confident, assured singing throughout an awesome, fast-moving ten tracks.
The lyrically adventurous "Kansai," for example, is wall-to-wall perfection courtesy of lead vocalist Wes Miles' sprawling, seemingly effortless tenor and guitarist Milo Bonacci's evocative, sublime guitar work. Lead single "Boy" is also rife with a spaced-out, New Order-esque arrangement and Miles' voice leading the way, swaying and soaring richly, and "Too Dramatic" is as cheeky as it is listenable.
Cellist Alexandra Lawson does a fine job taking over vocal duties for one song, the expressive, slightly oddball "You and I Know." Her delivery invites comparison to Stevie Nicks at the height of her popularity.
"Shadowcasting" is another fine highlight with its rhythmic arrangement from drummer Gabriel Duquette. If it were the lead single from the next U2 album it would become a major pop hit overnight, guaranteed. "Massachusetts" and "Do You Remember?" both have ingredients that make them ripe to cross over to mainstream radio. The latter is especially impressive with its evocative lyrics, urgent delivery and gorgeous work from group violinist Veronica Zeller.
The complex instrumentation, far-reaching vocals and hearty melodies rubbing against one another in impressive succession make "The Orchard" an extremely impressive disc. Ra-Ra Riot remain an individual, clearly hard-working group of musicians worthy of great praise, a highly impressive band that deserves to have a gold-selling album and a broader fan base.
My recommended tracks:
The Orchard: a dark, dreamy track that draws the listener into the rest of the record.
Boy: picks up the tempo and showcases the bassist's skills.
Massachusetts: Vampire Weekend's influence is palpable on this one, and it adds some variety to the middle of the record.
Do You Remember: the one builds up to a beautiful melange of vocals and strings.