CD Review of The Rhumb Line by Ra Ra Riot
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Label
Barsuk
Ra Ra Riot:
The Rhumb Line

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
hey’re only just now getting around to releasing their debut full-length, but the members of Ra Ra Riot have been through half a career’s worth of upheaval since coming together in 2006, enduring a label switch (they were one of the casualties of V2’s implosion), insane amounts of over-the-top buzz (Spin and NME have had massive erections for the band almost from the beginning), and even the death of a member (drummer John Pike drowned after a show in Rhode Island last summer). We’re almost certainly ticking down the seconds to the inevitable Ra Ra Riot hipster backlash, but before the buzzards start circling, let’s take a moment to try and objectively assess the long-awaited The Rhumb Line.

First things first: a chunk of the record – four of the 10 songs, to be precise – will be familiar to fans who purchased the self-titled EP the band released last July. Ra Ra Riot’s “Everest” and “A Manner to Act” don’t make the jump to Rhumb, but “Each Year,” “Dying Is Fine,” “Can You Tell,” and “Ghost Under Rocks” make their second appearances here, alongside three new tracks and a cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended in Gaffa.” The old songs blend seamlessly with the new, at least partly because they seem to have been drawn from the period before Pike’s death; he takes co-writing credits on “St. Peter’s Day Festival” and “Too Too Too Fast.” In fact, Pike co-wrote half the album – including, yikes, “Dying Is Fine” – which certainly raises a few questions about how the band will proceed creatively, but for now, it’s enough just to enjoy the songs as they’ve been recorded.

Fans of similarly New Wavey buzz bands, particularly Vampire Weekend, will find a lot to love in The Rhumb Line. Though Ra Ra Riot lacks Vampire Weekend’s Talking Heads/Graceland ‘80s world music vibe, both groups have a knack for spring-coiled alt-pop. Tracks like the pogo-bouncy, instantly memorable “Can You Tell” make a persuasive argument for all the months of hype, and with “Suspended in Gaffa,” they do the seemingly impossible in making a Kate Bush song sound like it might have been written by a native of the planet Earth.

If star-crossed circumstances and the totally unreasonable expectations created by the band’s supporters don’t crush them before they even get started – and that’s a very big if – Ra Ra Riot seem like strong career contenders. Sure, their sound borders on the annoyingly trendy, and more cynical listeners are apt to pull the plug the first time they hear Wesley Miles’ gulping falsetto jump out in front of those vintage synths. But behind all that, the band has a firm grasp on the important stuff – like, you know, hooks, melodies, and the economy of pop songwriting. Sounds change; those things don’t. Time will tell if Ra Ra Riot are really as good as their debut – but in the meantime, The Rhumb Line is a good one to grow on.

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