When the band Ra Ra Riot announced their new album drew inspiration from “futurist Ray Kurzweil’s musings on technological singularity and transhumanism,” it was clear a tonal shift was in store. The group’s baroque-pop sound, beautifully showcased on 2008′s The Rhumb Line, and then rehashed on 2010′s The Orchard, was due for a shakeup. But on Beta Love, Riot’s first release since the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn in early 2012, they sound like a different band altogether. With producer Dennis Herring at the helm (Modest Mouse/Wavves), the quartet ditches,almost entirely, its string-drenched sound in favor of poppy synths and drum machines, to mixed effect.
Opener “Dance With Me” verges on being jarringly clunky. With a saccharine chorus and dancehall rhythm, it aims for pop-disco throwback territory in the vein of Passion Pit, but is thwarted by a dull, repetitive chorus and some painfully lame lyrics (“Come and dance with me, bittersweet fool/I want to be your toy”). The frantic “Binary Mind” is a bit more of the same. Miles’ voice, earnest and evocative on previous albums, is stymied by a clumsy refrain and gadgetry.
Other tracks fare better melodically, either meandering before flickering out (“Is It Too Much,” “Wilderness”) or masking decent pop hooks with sterile drum machine thuds and mechanical keyboard pounding (“Angel, Please,” “For Once”). Gone are the intricate arrangements and clever bridges that made the choruses standout on Rhumb Line’s “Ghost Under Rocks” and “Oh, La.”
The title track is a glimpse at what Beta Love might have been if the group hadn’t been so intent on scrapping what’s worked in the past. Laced with violin and pretty electronic smatterings in all the right places, the tune’s infectious pre-chorus gives way to Miles’ synthesized falsetto as he muses on the theme of robot love. It’s a nice reminder that the future doesn’t have to be all Orwellian nightmares and cyber wars. The sparse “When I Dream” is, melodically and lyrically, a Ra Ra Riot throwback, with a nostalgic Miles painting vivid pictures (“I ride the dogs on the lake under the lights/A frozen breeze”) and singing of romance gone awry. The song melds a wrenching string arrangement with electronic whims. It boasts an emotional pull missing from so much of the rest of the record. Danceable album closer “I Shut Off” showcases Mathieu Santos’ distinctive throbbing bass and Milo Bonacci’s skillfully subtle guitar chops, but is held back by amateurish keyboard tinkering.
There are still some pop nuggets to be cherished here, but too often you can’t help but wondering what a lush string arrangement or some real drums might have added. In an effort to forge a new identity, Ra Ra Riot has created a synth-pop sound that’s being done much better by many of their contemporaries (see: Passion Pit’s Gossamer and Vampire Weekend’s Contra). Pared down and clocking in at just over thirty minutes, Beta Love serves as a reminder that sometimes more actually is more.