Ra Ra Riot, The Orchard
In 2009, the members of the indie rock band Ra Ra Riot retreated to a cabin in upstate New York to write the songs for their second album The Orchard. It is certainly a change of scenery for a band that has been caught up in a whirlwind of tours since 2006. Ra Ra Riot was a well-established live act before they even entered the studio and their 2008 release The Rhumb Line sold a tidy 60,000 copies; more than modest success for a young band’s first LP. Though The Orchard is only the band’s second release, the band has had enough history and experience to make this a hotly anticipated release. Unfortunately, Ra Ra Riot’s sophomore effort is perfectly sophomoric. The Orchard contains few surprises and never really manages to lift itself beyond the average.
Structurally, The Orchard is a frustrating album. Like The Rhumb Line, it is full of songs that, for all their complexity, just aren’t that memorable. This is not to say that the sound quality is hazy or amorphous. Technically speaking, this is a very pleasant album to listen to, and The Orchard is finely crafted. Its sound is given more breathing room than in The Rhumb Line. The string section is crisp, the vocals are left clean with only mild reverb and the bass and guitar interlock without muddying each other. The title track shows off the instrumental sophistication with bass, strings and vocals. It’s a beautiful song that never quite climaxes, but leaves us drifting into the next tracks. It’s a glorious introduction to what must surely be a fine set of pop songs. Alas, a grand introduction is as good as it gets. Like a film that shows all the good parts in its trailer, the rest of The Orchard never quite delivers on the promise of the first song. For all the nice texture, the melodies are too strangely shaped to recall clearly. Only the second track, "Boy," comes close, but it feels like the band took "how-to-write-a-catchy-single" lessons from Phoenix, making it feel like a second-rate version of "1901" with strings standing in for electric guitar.
The lyrics make the tracks even slipperier. Singer Wes Miles is mired in the same literary swamp as most average indie rock bands. Though the lyrics feel "personal," they lack personality. Each verse hints at true-to-life episodes but strips them of any specificity aside from the occasional location reference (e.g., “Massachusetts”). Massachusetts is a clear reference to the site of their first drummer’s death, but only those familiar with the band’s history would know this. The song holds no gravity of its own. The Orchard lacks any real distinguishing marks, so it comes off like a bad horoscope, describing situations and feelings that are so generic that they can apply to anyone equally and so don’t really seem to be about anything (“I don’t understand it/ You’re too dramatic”). This could be any orchard anywhere, and Miles could be any of the thousands of twentysomethings who lack the attention span to really communicate those feelings in a way that makes them matter.
Each song searches, remembers and aches without any definite object. Nostalgia doesn’t work that way. It is solid things that flood the memory with unspeakable feeling: smells, tastes, sounds, places, stories. Miles’ strolls through The Orchard don’t suggest a connection to anything tactile and so the emotions remain too ethereal and fade quickly. It’s as if Miles just wandered outside after staring at a screen all day and tried to write a poem. One of the girls sings a song later in the album, but it does little to lift us out of the album’s daze. Miles sets profundity in his sights and real feeling in his heart, but can’t find anything real even among the physical riches of nature. He’s like the sojourner in Carole King’s Tapestry: “Once he reached for something golden hanging from a tree, but his hand came down empty.”
Though I’ve heard that seeing this band live is, well, a riot, the album is far from brilliant. The first two tracks are solid efforts seem to herald mature and thoughtful pop, but the meat just isn’t there. Though each song is finely produced, the lack of songwriting talent leaves the album a litter of fine instrumentation that never takes shape. The Rhumb Line was a promising effort that provided the raw materials and showed off Ra Ra Riot’s broad instrumental capability, but The Orchard only continues to lay the same foundation and nothing has been built. The Orchard would have benefited greatly from more traditional pop licks and less tonal acrobatics. I fully expect Ra Ra Riot to continue as a successful live act. The album certainly would make for a fun live show since their brisk string-and-bass combo is unique among pop bands. Ra Ra Riot are skilled artisans, but they lack a real artist. Hopefully the muse will strike their next release.