By John Lynch, Senior Arts Editor
Published January 22, 2013
In music, there is a quantifiable and habitual science behind the “dud.” Most duds — which I define as a compelling band’s least compelling (and therefore shittiest) album release — will predictably result from the loss of a band member and a subsequent, oftentimes drastic, change in sound.
Ra Ra Riot
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The Clash, for instance, produced a dud in 1985 with Cut The Crap after dismissing guitarist Mick Jones, and The Morning Benders defined the modern dud in 2012 when they replaced their guitarist, changed their name to POP ETC and released a truly dreadful self-titled album that sounded as vapid as the new moniker felt.
With its third album, Beta Love, Ra Ra Riot has abandoned its charming, orchestral sound (and its cellist, Alexandra Lawn) and followed POP ETC into the depths of synth-driven vapidity. For lead singer Wes Miles, this album marks his second unsuccessful foray into electro-pop, after the release of 2009’s Discovery LP — a messy and inconsistent side project with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij.
Whereas the Discovery album had a number of decent (at least catchy) songs, however, Beta Love has only one — its ecstatic lead single and title track. “Beta Love,” with its memorably exultant chorus, is a pulsating piece of electronic maximalism that the album unquestionably fails to live up to in its 10 other tracks.
On “For Once,” Miles’s vocals are grating and constrained against obnoxiously loud, pop instrumentation, resulting in a track that would fit nicely with the faux-doo-wop dreck of Bruno Mars. When strings appear in the song’s second half, they are completely out of place and submerged under synths and a drum-machine beat — symbolic of the band’s abandonment of its once-signature sound.
Without a doubt the worst song Ra Ra Riot has ever made, “What I Do For U,” is an atrocious, one minute and 44 second-long assault on the ears — containing a nauseatingly basic and bass-heavy beat and piercingly auto-tuned, falsetto vocals. Tracks like “Binary Mind” and “That Much,” on the other hand, are reminiscent of the ’80s vibe that the band established in the dance tracks of its first two albums, but ultimately, they also succumb to overwhelming synths and a lack of noteworthy melody.
As a whole, the production on Beta Love is incredibly lackluster. A novice beatsmith could have easily produced songs like “When I Dream” and “Wilderness” on Fruity Loops, and overall, the sonic foundation of this album is a far cry from the innovative baroque pop of The Rhumb Line and The Orchard.
Please understand that this criticism of synths in the context of Beta Love does not translate to a blanket criticism of synth-pop at large. Many bands and artists have certainly embraced an electronic sound and flourished in it. But in a synth-pop world where groups like Passion Pit are producing catchier songs and artists like Toro Y Moi are crafting groovier albums, it’s hard for this electronic Ra Ra Riot album to feel up to snuff.
With a more artful approach to auto-tune and production (and maybe some more strings), Ra Ra Riot could certainly thrive in this genre in the future, but for now, we are left with Beta Love and its dud-ly mediocrity.