Even before their original drummer, John Pike, tragically drowned last suumer, New York’s Ra Ra Riot were shrouded in death. In the lyrics, written by Pike and lead singer Wesley Miles, images of ghosts, cemeteries, and dying young pop up again and again. But it’s death viewed from the Morrisey school -- as an affirmation of life (see “Cemetry Gates” from The Queen Is Dead). When Ra Ra Riot sing about looking out over “where the dead rest,” they’re not there to kill themselves or even contemplate it: It just puts them in touch with their own mortality.
Ra Ra Riot’s death fascination is well displayed on the band’s Barsuk debut, The Rhumb Line. Like another well-to-do band from New York with a debut album out this year (it rhymes with Shampire Shweekend), The Rhumb Line is a quick blast of regal pop that’s sure to set indie-loving hearts aflutter.
Whereas Vampire Weekend (who are actually friends with Ra Ra Riot; Rostam Batmaglij helped with the music for “Can You Tell”) got reams of press for their economical take on Afropop, Ra Ra Riot meld the literary rock of the Smiths with the syncopated new wave of the Police and toss in stringed orchestral instruments like cello and violin. You won’t hear anything on The Rhumb Line you haven’t heard before, but that doesn’t prevent it from being one of the year’s best debuts.
Grinding strings open “Ghost Under Rocks,” a lilting song written by Pike. The song segues into the new wave-with-strings of “Each Year,” a song that searches for some meaning in antiquity. Many of the songs tread similar territory, with Miles endlessly searching for the way things used to be, whether that be the great winter he spent with a companion (“Winter ’05,” which could be construed as an ode to Pike), a broken relationship that went to fast (the synthy heights of “Too Too Fast”), or sticking it out in a relationship where each partner has too much to learn from each other (“Oh, La”).
But these songs are nearly set pieces compared to the album’s centerpiece, “Dying Is Fine.” In his review of the band’s self-released EP last year, Prefix’s Kevin Dolak noted that it could have been a contender for song of the year if it hadn’t sounded so rough. The problems of the EP version (a verse that's too slow, crusty sonics) have been replaced with a well-produced sheen, and the song is trimmed down to a paltry four minutes. Miles sounds like a man possessed as a string-led musical maelstrom explodes and implodes behind him. It's one of the year’s most exhilarating vocal performances.
Prior to The Rhumb Line Ra Ra Riot were best known as an anecdotal footnote to other bands. They used to be known for the second-best “Hounds of Love” cover (to the Futureheads, natch, even though the band still cover Kate Bush here, with a solid take of “Suspended in Gaffa”). They were known as that band that palled around with Vampire Weekend. All of that is set to change.
The graceful rock of Ra Ra Riot finally makes its way to full-length format. Though the group has experienced its share of revelries (rave performances at both CMJ and SXSW) and tragedies (the death of drummer John Pike) in the past two years, the band will likely expand on its mix of string harmonies, gentle singing and happy feet rhythms on this debut album.