Wandering “The Orchard” with Ra Ra Riot

Aug. 5, 2010, 9:45 a.m.

It all came too fast for Ra Ra Riot. Too, too, too fast. Formed in 2006 in Syracuse, the band was primed to be the next indie blog sweethearts. And for all intents and purposes, they were. There were the glowing reviews and the opening tours: Editors and later, Tokyo Police Club. There were the Daytrotter sessions and the smashing South by Southwest appearances.

But there was also death.

The loss of drummer John Pike before the band had released their first full album put Ra Ra Riot at a crossroads, one that came much too soon for their, or anyone’s, liking. Where do we go from here? Where can we go from here?

Yet, they picked themselves back up, channeling their emotions into “The Rhumb Line,” a 10-track arrangement of strings, nostalgia and a renewed sense of being. And much as Pike was a force in actual creation – he co-wrote most of the songs with frontman Wes Miles – he seemed an even bigger presence as an inspiration, allowing the band to focus on a single cause in the memory of a friend.

Try getting over the sophomore hump with that void to fill.

“The Orchard” represents the band’s second bite at the cherry, but it also represents the traversing of another crossroad. With little time to breathe since their first release in 2008 and a subsequent whirlwind of tours, the band used the time they had to create their second album for a little reflection. Heading to an orchard in upstate New York, they found peace, and peaches, isolating themselves in a world that mixed farm equipment with recording equipment. It’s isolation that’s bred introspection.

As much as “The Rhumb Line” was extroverted – sharing very raw emotions and memories in a collection of upbeat percussion and energy – ”The Orchard” is introverted. The title track saunters in at a slower pace than anything we’ve heard before, carried by “Eleanor Rigby”-esque string arrangement and moping bass-line, which pops up throughout the 10-tracker, via Mathieu Santos. It’s darker than anything we’ve seen before, with Miles wailing, “All my life, you were important, and your father too, wandering the orchard.” Even more symbolic is the absence on the track of the band’s new drummer, Gabriel Duquette, serving as a subtle transition away from the influence of Pike.

The transition is an important one too. As Miles said in an earlier interview, many of the other band members provided input during the songwriting process, as well as vocal contributions. Cellist Alexandra Lawn takes over the mic for “You and I Know,” doing her best Nancy Sinatra impression on the gentle lullaby, before the song takes off in a flurry of edgy guitar. “Massachusetts” is just as light, as the band directs the influence of pals, Vampire Weekend, toward its own little “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” The only anomaly on the album seems to be the fun “Boy,” the single, which is a reversion to older tendencies and an energy pinnacle that isn’t matched anywhere else on “The Orchard.”

As much as the album is one for long summer days ruminating under a weathered fruit tree, it also serves as the band’s commitment to orchestral strings. The violin and cello are not accessories, but rather a means for structuring, layering and maturing songs, as seen from San Diego shout-out “Kansai” to the lovely “Shadowcasting.” The latter, punctuated by the warmest of cello contributions, highlights the power of an instrument unfamiliar to the genre and unheralded outside the likes of one omnipotent virtuoso that no one actually listens to, but frequently namedrops: Yo-Yo Ma. “Too Dramatic,” an early live-performance favorite, is cast in the same mold and feels like a subtle jab at anyone who ever criticized the band for expressing themselves after the loss of their close friend. And despite the occasional muddying when Miles’ high-pitched contributions get caught up with the violins, the commitment is one that provides ample reward in the development of the band’s sound.

In this sense “Foolish” is pay dirt, as Miles plops himself behind a piano for a ballad that pushes the band’s instrumental limits and the lead singer’s windpipes. He sings: “I don’t know myself, but I know you. How can you be so callous? How can you be so callous?” framed by a crescendo of strings, and one haphazard, but innocent guitar repetition.

If that wasn’t enough for thought, the album ends with “Keep It Quiet,” cleaned up from the lo-fi version featured on the “Boy” single. Sounding as if the band locked itself in a church with an organ, the dirge asks for nothing more than calm, some time for recollection and the closest of friends to enjoy it with. The band harmonizes, “Keep it quiet, keep it quiet, oh my heartbeat keep it quiet. Through the doorway, keep it quiet. Yes I’m tired, keep it quiet.” It’s a simple request, but for Ra Ra Riot, it’s a much-needed one. They’re just looking for some peace.


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