The turmoil the members of Ra Ra Riot had to go through just to put out their debut album — the death of founding member John Pike, deciding whether to continue without him, trying to top a beloved single (“Ghost Under Rocks”) — is usually spread out over a band’s entire career. They had to deal with it over the course of a year, ultimately succeeding with 2008’s winning Rhumb Line. So it’s not surprising that, minus the strife, their sophomore album, The Orchard, is a more temperate affair. The Orchard is the sound of Ra Ra Riot hitting for the middle, delivering 10 tracks of deliberate orchestral-tinged indie-pop that’ll hit you in your 2007-era blog-rock pleasure center.
Where on The Rhumb Line the Syracuse band was trying to shake off being the little brothers to Vampire Weekend (whose Rostam Batmanglij helped out on that album and this one), The Orchard finds Ra Ra Riot trying to be indie-pop’s answer to Fleetwood Mac. That mostly goes over OK, with lead singer Wes Miles playing the tortured Lindsey Buckingham role of a lonely boy looking for love (the title track, “Boy”), trying to win back a lost love (“Do You Remember”) upon realizing that he blew it (“Foolish”). There’s even the Stevie Nicks rebuttal via cellist Alexandra Lawn’s brassy and knockout performance on excellent album standout “You And I Know.” It’s a monster of a song, cresting on Lawn’s vocals and Milo Bonacci’s lightning guitar solo, and it might be the first song Ra Ra Riot have recorded that could replace “Ghost Under Rocks” as their calling card. It also strongly makes the case for moving Lawn out front full time.
Overall, however, The Orchard lacks The Rhumb Line’s literate post-collegiate energy and is dominated by sleepy, middling tracks that Miles, who logged time in pseudo R&B group Discovery, hardly seems committed to, like “Too Dramatic,” “Kansai,” “Keep It Quiet” and the Vampire Weekend-sounding “Massachusetts.” In the press leading up to The Orchard, Miles said the main thing he learned from the half-baked Discovery was to do whatever he felt like, regardless of what people said. Here it seems like what he learned was that just showing up and singing is good enough. Too often on this album, it’s not.