You’ll often hear Vampire Weekend mentioned in connection with Ra Ra Riot, for a variety of reasons not necessarily related to their musical approaches. Both emerged in the late ’00s, possess a big, effusive sound and are connected through Ra Ra Riot singer Wes Miles (who’s a childhood friend of one member and started the electro-soul band Discovery with another). However, their paths have very different trajectories.
Formed at Syracuse University in 2006 from members of the music school, Ra Ra Riot plays an, at times, peculiarly vigorous brand of chamberpop fueled by cello and violin, in addition to traditional rock instrumentation. The sextet got its start playing house parties around Syracuse, earning attention for its lively performances and Miles’ lovely tenor croon.
That fall they earned an invitation to New York’s CMJ Music Festival. They then decided to take their shot, as two members quit school to join their recently graduated mates, and they began touring voraciously.
“When we got invited to play CMJ, there were people who were boosting us and it seemed like kind of a do-able thing,” says cellist Alexandra Lawn. “It just kind of happened.”
As ’07 began, the band began recording a self-titled six-song debut, a release that, even after two albums, stands out as its best work, which is less an indictment of their more recent work than an acknowledgment of the incredible musicality of the first effort. It’s highlighted by the powerful six-minute epic “Dying Is Fine,” which keenly balances driving guitars and elegiac trilling strings. Its subject would prove strangely prescient, as in June, after a show in Fairhaven, Mass., drummer John Ryan Pike disappeared and was found drowned in the bay the next day.
The band was devastated and struggled with whether to go on.
“It just felt like we weren’t doing him any justice by stopping everything that we had created with him. Things that he had created,” Lawn says. “So it felt appropriate to continue.”
The EP came out the next month and attracted the interest of V2 Records, which paid for them to record their debut, The Rhumb Line. They’d already finished the album — which re-records four of its 10 tracks from that sterling EP — when V2 announced it was folding. Northwestern indie label
Barsuk stepped up, and it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship, as Ra Ra Riot has become one of its best-selling artists (next to those old Death Cab albums).
While The Rhumb Line (taken from a pub near Pike’s house, and mentioned in the song “St. Peter’s Day Festival”) is a fine album, it’s shadowed by the loss that preceded it. The songs bustle with vibrancy, but the mood is darker and suffused with a sense of lost innocence.
“I’m sure there’s some degree of innocence that’s taken away when someone in your life is all of sudden gone because of a tragic accident. Everyone has to go through that at some point. For a lot of us, that was our first big one,” Lawn says. “In that sense there was maybe some innocence lost. Now when we write music, we try to still stay true to John, like ‘What would John do?’” Last year the band released The Orchard, which emerges from the darkness with a brighter, more dulcet, meditative sound. While the syncopated rhythms still bubble beneath the surface, there’s more sweep and swell than rock attack. The songs still pulse, but have moved toward a beatific elegance that’s punctuated with guitar, not driven by it.
The album’s title is taken from the upstate New York peach orchard where they spent a month writing and recording the album. The titular orchard offered refuge from the hardships of the road, and it bears some responsibility for the album’s softer tone.
“The environment was beautiful, so I think that had a play in it,” Lawn says.
For Lawn it represents her attempt at singing, unveiling a sultry, alabaster soprano on “You and I Know.” It’s gotten her creative juices flowing, even if it was harrowing at first to step up to the microphone on tour.
“It was nerve-wracking, but it’s opened up the door with me, and made me a little more confident with my own songwriting and singing. Things have gotten a lot more interesting,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of demos of songs done, and we’re about ready to get into the studio.”
There’s a sense with Ra Ra Riot that they’re on the cusp of big things, just a few steps behind Vampire Weekend, verging on mainstream familiarity.
On the Bill
Ra Ra Riot plays the Fox Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 15. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Delicate Steve and Yellow Ostrich open. Tickets are $18, plus $2 for those under 21. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.