It’s a good thing I’m not that great a musician. I don’t think I could handle any sort of hype or pressure that comes along with being in a band. Take Syracuse, NY-based Ra Ra Riot. This time last year, the six members were just hanging out with maybe skeletons of the songs that are on their debut EP. Now they’ve opened for Art Brut, NME has praised their live show and Spin.com is calling them “one of the best young bands we’ve heard in a really long time.” Whew, that’s a lot for a band to take in after having just formed in January 2006. I don’t know about you but I think it’s these series of tubes called the internets that’s lending to all of this hype.
Time will really tell if Ra Ra Riot will live up to thse lofty expectations but with their self-titled EP they are well on their way. The EP captures the sound of a new band bursting with energy and possibility. This six-piece band blends chamber pop and Altera rock to make an interesting concoction. Ra Ra Riot’s use of violin and cello has given them the not so enviable position of being compared to Arcade Fire. At first glance the comparison is a pretty lazy one, but the EP has that same raw and exuberant quality that made Arcade Fire’s debut so special. Though sounding very different from it, opening track “Each Year” reminded me of Arcade Fire’s “Diamonds Look Like Headlights.” The strings add a lovely depth to the song and stir a little something inside.
“Everest” is very listenable but after the great opening of “Each Year,” it falters. The persistent cowbell sounds woefully out of place and the song manages to sound like a bad emo song with a string arrangement. It’s an angsty song, but in a slightly annoying younger brother kind of way. Not to say there aren’t some good aspects: drummer John Pike provides some really great drum fills giving it a really exquisite beat. Tragically, however, Pike died earlier this year, and young musician though he was, left some rather big shoes to fill.
A recurring theme in the EP is death. “Dying is Fine” is a wonderfully earnest song adapted from an e.e. cummings poem. Singer Wesley Miles sings with such an idealistic nature set to such a disarmingly poppy beat that you sort of forget the song’s highbrow roots. It’s like if Dexy’s Midnight Runners penned their lone hit about death rather than Eileen. “Can You Tell” is the kind of New Wave-tinged romantic song that the little emo kid with the Pete Wentz haircut would play on his boom box in front of his girlfriend’s window a la Lloyd Dobbler. It’s a sweet song but doesn’t overkill with the syrup. Instead the chugging guitars keep the song sharp and aggressive.
In “A Manner to Act” the only real fault I can even ascribe is that it sounds a bit too much like the other songs. The beginning swells and recalls pre-Adore Smashing Pumpkins, but it ends up sounding a little too similar to earlier songs. But by the 0:22 mark, all is forgiven as Miles leads a furious last verse that brings the song to a shocking close. EP closer “Ghost Under Rocks” has all the seriousness of Neon Bible and the song does have a rather soul rousing quality. What stops me short from a right out comparison to Neon Bible is that while I know the band is very sincere about it, I can’t feel it across the speakers as I can with Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire just had that lump-in-the-throat quality that Ra Ra Riot doesn’t quite have yet. “Ghost Under Rocks” is still a very good song and I’m sure it just soars live, but something about it just doesn’t work for me.
Judging from their debut EP, Ra Ra Riot have a lot of potential of being a really amazing band, the kind that has the whole crowd singing at shows. Right now, however, it’s not quite there yet. “Each Year” is an exceptionally good song, but the others come dangerously close to the bad emo line. Miles’ sincere delivery is just so earnest that it’s bordering on cringe-worthy. I can’t imagine that I’m much older than the band members, but something about their songs just makes them seem so young. There’s a lot of energy and promise in Ra Ra Riot and with the added hype and expectation, I honestly look forward to what they bring to the table next.