When not dabbling with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij in electronic duo Discovery, Wes Miles is the sensitive, husky-voiced leader of soft rockers Ra Ra Riot, whose debut gem, The Rhumb Line, expertly sewed together the disparate elements of baroque pop and indie rock. The lion-throated Miles is consistently (and unapologetically) a pining romantic, leading his cellists and violinists through dreamy, yelp-littered paeans to unrequited love. The Orchard is no different: Essentially The Rhumb Line, Part II, the album polishes and perfects rather than expands Ra Ra Riot's dreamer sound.
Still, while there's nothing here as immediately engaging or memorable as The Rhumb Line's "Can You Tell," The Orchard possesses a richer pulse, achieving beauty through more subtle means than quick, catchy licks. In what is perhaps a clear sign of Batmanglij's influence, Miles and company are more content to let atmospherics and rhythms drive their music this time around. Often on The Rhumb Line, strings were employed awkwardly, misplaced in guitar-like roles and floundering as they were forced to deliver heavy-handed rock riffs. On The Orchard, cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller are instead effective accompanists: The title track finds them setting a dramatic beat with no aid but a wonderfully lonely bass, finally spilling into a tragic cascade as Miles moans, "Oh, I imagine things." Even the Vampire Weekend-esque "Massachusetts" is more solemn than its preppy beat would suggest thanks to the purposeful swell of Lawn and Zeller's instruments.
Beyond the mismatched "You and I Know," The Orchard suffers few missteps, as the newly refined usage of strings lends weight to even the most saccharine proceedings. And, of course, there's Miles himself: Sounding freer and more reflective, his voice evokes a liberated spirit. Though his natural vocal talent reliably lifted Ra Ra Riot's debut from pretty pop diversion into something that was altogether more touching and compelling, such a Herculean effort wasn't necessary here: The Orchard is no less sweet or sentimental than its predecessor, but it's a stronger, more complete record.