Any band’s sophomore album is a natural evolutionary talking point and generally regarded as proof of the old musical adage that a band takes its whole life to make its first album and nine months to make the second one. In the case of Ra Ra Riot, the evolution is more complex and tragically steered.
Three years ago, the Syracuse, N.Y., sextet was riding high on an intense media buzz after their CMJ and SXSW gigs and glowing reviews for their eponymous six-track debut EP comparing the young Chamber Pop group to R.E.M., U2 and the Smiths. But the ride came to an abrupt end when drummer/lyricist John Pike drowned in the midst of what should have been a triumphant tour. R3 regrouped and, with the support and insistence of Pike’s family, soldiered on, becoming an even stronger unit in the process.
The band’s debut full-length, 2008’s The Rhumb Line, was almost universally praised for its Chamber Emo passion and originality, garnering a rare-for-an-indie four-star review in Rolling Stone. The Rhumb Line also stood as a living memorial to Pike; he had co-written more than half of the album’s songs.
Clearly, Ra Ra Riot will never forget their departed friend, as evidenced by the prominent “For John” in the credits of their new album, The Orchard. At the same time, The Orchard also represents R3’s first album without Pike’s actual input, which, in one sense, could almost classify it as Ra Ra Riot’s second debut. The band still brilliantly marries a sonorous Chamber classicism to an effervescent New Wave pulse, exemplified by the one-two opening punch of the melancholy title track and the manically driven U2/English Beat/Afro Pop pace of “Boy.” With “Too Dramatic,” R3 strikes a Dance Pop pose that handily dismisses Maroon 5’s lightweight and trendy genre attempts, a beating that continues on “Shadowcasting” and “Massachusetts,” where the band folds in the slinky Pop subtlety and careening excitement of The New Pornographers while maintaining their own unique Baroque Pop identity.
On The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot walks the trickiest creative wire of all, namely expanding their existing sonic repertoire while reinforcing the wonderful singularity that got them to this point in the first place.