Review: The ever-evolving Ra Ra Riot plays Union Transfer
Ra Ra Riot is different. It’s not just their sound, which, as we were reminded at Union Transfer on Thursday, has shifted from sunny, string-centric e.e. cummings references to techno interpretations of technological singularity. There is that shift, but on a more basic level, the band itself has changed.
When Ra Ra Riot formed in 2006, the six founding members were still in college. Mathieu Santos, Wes Miles, Milo Bonacci, Rebecca Zeller, Alexandra Lawn and John Ryan Pike garnered critical attention within six months of coming together. The group was already touring the country by 2007, with South by Southwest and CMJ under its belt, when tragedy struck. Drummer John Ryan Pike was found dead after a show in Providence. His death rattled the group, who decided to continue making music, but released “Dying Is Fine” shortly after. It is a dark piece of baroque pop which essentially functions as an adaptation of e.e. cummings’ poem “dying is fine)but Death.” The song’s instant popularity became the group’s calling card – its catharsis closed most songs on their tour behind 2008’s The Rhumb Line – and their reputation for sugar-coated somber intellectualism was sealed.
After The Rhumb Line, Ra Ra Riot went back to work. But between 2010’s The Orchard – critically deemed a sophomore slump – and their third album, Beta Love, Ra Ra Riot’s cellist departed, taking with her the last tatters of the group’s early sound. Beta Love is an album of techno pop, for beta or for worse.
Known for songs that discussed death, ghosts and loneliness with energy and honesty, Ra Ra Riot turned to robots, binary and abbreviations (see track: “What I Do For U”) sung in falsetto for their latest project. Is the work bad? For fans of their earlier material, sometimes it does seem that way. It is unfathomable that “Dance With Me” could be written by the same group who created “Ghost Under Rocks,” but therein lies the question at the heart (or hard drive?) of Ra Ra Riot’s reincarnation. It’s hard to know, given how much Ra Ra Riot has been through in the last six years and how rapidly it has switched genres, if it’s even fair to call this the same band anymore.
Thursday’s show did little to answer the question. The set was heavy on older material. Of the 18 songs played, seven were from The Rhumb Line, three were from The Orchard, and eight were from Beta Love. Curiously, though, several of the newer songs were slowed down (most notably “When I Dream”) to sound more like the group’s older body of work.
If the knee-jerk reaction to Beta Love is to relinquish Ra Ra Riot from the responsibility of re-crafting The Rhumb Line, or to write them off as a different project than they used to be, last night’s show stifled that impulse. It’s worth considering, too, that The Rhumb Line is (regrettably) a shorter album than Beta Love, and so technically, all but two songs from the album were performed, whereas three were left out from Beta Love. It’s not a huge difference, but it does communicate a certain reverence for, or at least prioritization of, the older work. Whether the set list catered to the band’s interests or to audience reactions, the show felt (especially when “Run My Mouth” and “Ghost Under Rocks” were played back to back) like we could have all been back in 2009.
Ra Ra Riot didn’t snub their new aesthetic, though. Rebecca Zeller’s violin was coated in silver glitter. During “Binary Mind,” frontman Wes Miles pantomimed the lyrics and during “Dance With Me,” he looked and sounded very much the part of a teen heartthrob. The group did a convincing job of integrating the different sounds. In the midst of the techno, nostalgic moments slipped in, like an on-stage embrace between Miles and bassist Mathieu Santos, or the curious moment when the lyric “When I dream, it’s not of you,” made an appearance in both “When I Dream” and “Run My Mouth,” which were played only one song apart. Given their intellectual lyrical content, its likely that a deliberate choice was made in ending the encore with the Beta Love track “I Shut Off,” which, in its argument in favor of human death and decay, is the antithesis to the rest of the new album.
If Ra Ra Riot seemed to make a definitive departure from their old sound when Beta Love dropped, their non-committal live show suggests the opposite. We’re happy to let them slide.