Ra Ra Riot’s Beta Love represents a pronounced departure from the string-quartet-led, chamber-friendly experimentalism of the band’s first two albums, The Rhumb Line and The Orchard; it contains few orchestral excursions, opting instead for a rather Eurobeat approach. The title track is a clip-art version of a dancehall anthem, interesting only for its paltry 20-second instrumental breakdown. More troubling, frontman Wes Miles, rightly revered for a surgical control of his upper register, has achieved a new level of fey, sounding very much like a poor man’s David Longstreth. These instances of (d)evolution can be attributed, in part, to the departure of cellist and singer Alexandra Lawn. Live strings do make rare, welcome appearances here, but most of the album’s orchestral strokes are of the synthetic variety. The result is a gooey synth-pop album that leans on Auto-Tune and production gimmicks. As the saying goes: “For want of a cellist the kingdom was lost.”
At a mere 30 minutes, the album zips by quickly enough, thanks in no small part to the muscular, propulsive work of bassist Mathieu Santos and a drum machine that probably now languishes in the corner of the studio, crippled from overuse. With lyrics about a “technocratic future world” and a “city of robot parts,” Miles is perhaps nudging his audience to read medium as message. A shame, then, that the medium is all ‘80s throwback with no conscious sense of retro-cool. The songs work best when the guitar moves to the fore, as in “Binary Mind,” or when Santos is given free rein to get slaphappy on the bass. High points include the stylish key change that catalyzes the jumpy and fun “Angel, Please,” as well as “When I Dream,” one of the album’s many kiss-off tunes. When Miles isn’t kissing-off, he’s coming on, though one tends to question the efficacy of his game: The lyric “Come and dance with me/Pretty, sweet fool/I wanna be your toy” on album opener “Dance with Me” treads a traditional edge between masochism and male chauvinism, but it doesn’t exactly qualify as a pick-up line.
One of the album’s consistent techniques—interesting at first, though soon annoying—is to end nearly every song on an abrupt downbeat followed by radio silence. It’s a bold flourish, one that would be very effective if the inevitably foregoing crescendo had actually earned it. But the songs here are so by the book that the band is probably in debt for library fines, and the few instances of sexual wisdom are mainly obscured by the ADD relentlessness of the machine-powered music. Beta Love is a fine album for the dance floor, a poor one for the headphones, and a disconcerting new direction for the band. Perhaps producer Dennis Herring, known for his work with Modest Mouse and Wavves, isn’t sufficiently Swedish to pull off the synth-pop thing, or perhaps the band has been overly swayed by their favorite books: The album’s press materials note that the band drew inspiration for Beta Love from “the works of cyberpunk novelist William Gibson and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s musings on technological singularity and transhumanism.” Polysyllables like that would go to anyone’s head. Here’s hoping that, technological singularity aside, Ra Ra Riot will come to realize that the drum machine is never as interesting as its human overlords.