For a band as relatively unknown as Ra Ra Riot--or at the very least, as green (and I don't mean in the Let's-Give-Al-Gore-The-Noble-Peace-Prize-For-Telling-Everyone-It's-Hot-Out sort of green)--they sure have been through one helluva ringer. Set back by the departure of their lead singer in 2006, and eventually devastated by the death of drummer John Ryan Pike in 2007, the band as of yet had only an EP to their name. It's enough for even a major rock outfit to disband and seek refuge in the formation of new projects or at least a 9 - 5, but Ra Ra Riot persevered, releasing The Rhumb Line this month on Barsuk Records.
Despite the unfortunate connotations one might associate with hyper poppers the Go! Team based solely on their name, Ra Ra Riot is quite unlike what one would expect. With vocals that occasionally call to mind the Kinks or James Mercer (among a million other unrelated singers) and soaring guitar melodies buttressed by dissonant strings, Ra Ra Riot's 10-song full length is at once a cohesive whole and a unique collection of paeans.
From the wobbling cello see-sawing on album opener "Ghost Under Rocks" to the punkish drumline in "Each Year," most songs follow a formula that builds them gradually around Wesley Miles' trills before dissolving into a string-centric flourishes. The orchestral restructuring is a beautiful thing to experience here, as Miles laments, "It all falls apart," on "St. Peter's Day Festival," and a sweetly drawn out violin links one part of the melody to the next, the thread weaving its way throughout The Rhumb Line. Like the pervasive sadness over Pike's passing, Ra Ra Riot imbue their songs with a certain amount of pathos, yet never tread too heavily in the waters of self-pity. If anything, it's a poignant tribute to a friend who was lost, and then residual hope that's left over is what makes the album soar.
For fans of The Arcade Fire's noisy chamber pop or "Walcott"-ish Vampire Weekend theatrics (minus the insouciant LES 'tude), Ra Ra Riot will certainly augment their iTunes. For everyone else, with an album as lovely and cohesive as The Rhumb Line from a band as resilient as Ra Ra Riot, people won't be asking, "Who?" for long.