Ra Ra Riot’s third LP, Beta Love, is a lot like a colorful box of candy—a bright and infectious collection of songs that hooks you on first taste. While the band’s previous albums have always been thoroughly addictive, there’s something about this synth-filled sensation that put me in a junkie state. Inspired by the works of futurist author Ray Kurzweil and cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, Ra Ra Riot began drifting toward a more electronic sound for its latest album. Thus the sweeping string virtuousness of The Rhumb Line (2008) and The Orchard (2010) was stripped on a journey into the uncharted land of electronic pop, perhaps due to the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn.
All of this electronic sugar indicates happiness, as shown in Beta Love‘s opening track, “Dance With Me.” “I mostly feel I had a good day,” sings frontman Wes Miles, setting a positive stance for the rest of the album. It’s immediately clear that Ra Ra Riot, with prescription from producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello), has tossed away its more organic signature sound, swapping it for a more synthetic treatment of electronic pops and fizzes, and ultra-falsetto vocals.
On the one hand there’s “What I Do For U,” which is a bit like chewy candy wrapped in waxed paper, the one you’d usually leave till last or just darn right give away. Perhaps it’s just a little too experimental, with obvious after-production, chiptune beats and overlapping, distant vocals. But, for the first time, it actually sounds like Ra Ra Riot is having fun. Take the album’s second track, “Binary Mind,” a great dance number, fueled by electronic guitar riffs, bouncy synths, violins and contagious clapping. The whole thing is certainly enigmatic, but there’s no doubt that the Syracuse-spawned foursome are enjoying themselves.
For fans in hope of the baroque pop they’ve come to expect and love from the band, “That Much” is the closest you’ll get to any of Ra Ra Riot’s previous albums. The rest is a mechanical manifestation of their past selves. As Miles puts it in the title track, “I might be a prototype, but we’re both real inside,” through exalted, smooth vocals that double layer at the chorus to create an almost robotic sound, fitting to the album’s technological theme.
If anything, the band is certainly reaching for new musical heights. And, with packaging this glossy, it’s no wonder Ra Ra Riot’s new taste of pop confection has given me a sugar rush.