*CONTENT WARNING: SOME DISCUSSION OF SUICIDE*
Indie rock veterans Ra Ra Riot released their fifth album in early August. “Superbloom” promises a “psychedelic, transformative” album of “earnestness and positivity and rebirth” according to a band interview with Under the Radar. After well over a decade of music, can Ra Ra Riot blossom again?
Hailing from Syracuse, New York, Ra Ra Riot began their album career on 2008’s “The Rhumb Line.” The LP was a deceptively fun indie rock romp: Lead singer Wes Miles’ clear-but-not-cutting falsetto littered mildly pretentious lyrics about loneliness, death and finding meaning, while the band played upbeat rock with prominent violin and cello.
“The Rhumb Line” is a good album, but 2010 follow-up “The Orchard” repeated the formula with less energy. After cellist Alexandra Lawn left in 2012, the band turned to dance-influenced, synth-heavy rock on 2013’s “Beta Love” and 2016’s “Need Your Light.” “The Rhumb Line” stands head and shoulders above the uneven, mediocre records to follow. Perhaps the latest album will break the streak?
“Superbloom” starts with promise. “Flowers” and “Bad to Worse” are both throwbacks to the pop side of ‘60s psychedelia, a la the Mamas and the Papas or the Beach Boys. Sunny, melodic and fuzzy, the spaced-out instruments work wonders with the more serious drums. The muffled chants on “Flowers” and the chorus synths from “Bad to Worse” are especially great. If Beach House wanted a radio hit or if MGMT were less cynical, they would sound like Ra Ra Riot here.
After a great opening, “Superbloom” quickly goes all over the place. Track three “Belladonna” goes for M83’s epic-sounding EDM-pop rock blend, down to the ‘80s drums and “o-o-o” backup vocals in the chorus. Afterwards, some songs like the rocking “Endless Pain/Endless Joy” or the funky “This Time Of Year” return to the ‘60s style.
“War & Famine,” “An Accident” and “Gimme Time” go more ambient. “Bitter Conversation” is a Saint Pepsi-style electronic reinterpretation of cheesy late ‘70s soul. “A Check For Daniel” goes to stripped-down and nervous new wave, and the rest of the album is middle of the road indie/alt rock.
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War & Famine out tomorrow! This is probably the most personal track on the record for me. One of the only times I’ve ever tracked and comped vocals totally alone in my apartment without anyone else to filter through. That allowed me to be really free and let things go that I may have felt too vulnerable about otherwise. I’ve usually steered clear of “political” lyrics because it’s just not the music that I thought I was best at making, but this idea of generational entitlement was something I kept hearing about at the time but sounded completely ridiculous to me (cue Principal Skinner, “No, it’s the children who are wrong!”) and just came up naturally. The other really cool thing about this song is that it came from listening to a demo of another track on the record backwards just for fun. I won’t say which one because it’s not out yet but it’ll probably be pretty easy to tell once you do hear the record.
The derivative nature of many of the tracks is not a major issue when Ra Ra Riot just goes fast and has fun. They write good hooks, make pretty melodies and keep the energy grooving. “Bitter Conversation” is a flat out great song. The problem is “Superbloom” can’t keep up when the LP slows down.
The band certainly makes charming music, but fewer lush textures and hooks make the more ambient songs dull. They are neither expert nor aesthetic enough to hold interest without some quick drums holding everything together.
Ra Ra Riot’s thesis of rebirth has a grain of truth for the sound of “Superbloom.” They’ve certainly gone into some more aggressive and out there styles while also resembling the dance vibes of their last album, “Need Your Light.” However, given how their genre switches default so often to recent indie rock standards, their rebirth isn’t complete.
As far as writing, “Superbloom” takes a tried and true approach with some maturity. The album loosely follows the story of two lovers who wander all over the United States, fighting and running away and reuniting repeatedly. Ra Ra Riot hits a good combination of the optimistic and world-weary, almost fatalistic.
In “Bad to Worse,” they “can’t lift that curse”: He’ll always return to her and get entangled with no hope of change. His lover “erased the world outside” in “Belladonna.” According to the lyrics on “Flowers,” only death can ensure the two don’t run back to each other.
And yet, with their upbeat music and lovely singing, the whole thing sounds like a grand adventure of love. They play lyrical dissonance well, and with purpose. Like how the upbeat grooves draw in the listener — sometimes to the point of ignoring the morbid lyrics — the emotional rush the two lovers feel draws them together to the point of ignoring how fractured and unhealthy the relationship is.
Closing track “A Check For Daniel” uses a metaphor of a terrible apartment to illustrate. Miles is stuck in a building out of his price range and nothing works, and he wants to go home, yet he also wants his love to come back. Similarly, all lyrical indications on “Superbloom” say the relationship is emotionally draining for both partners; both keep fleeing, and yet they always return to each other.
The rebirth angle works when one ignores the band’s claims. Ra Ra Riot intended “Superbloom” to be a beautiful sort of rebirth. The title refers to a large group of desert wildflowers simultaneously blossoming. The album refers more to travel and transportation than to flowers, and the songs refer more to a cyclical, painful life and death and rebirth than to something as purely beautiful as the titular phenomenon.
Two songs step outside the love angle. “War & Famine” is about how the youth want to change the world, but older generations claim they’re lazy and fabricating issues because said generations willfully ignore problems around them. The message is more a feeling of frustration than a message, and Ra Ra Riot are too vague for the serious tone.
The band play sparse, somber strings against Miles’ pained tenor, but all the lyrics have to say are (a) bad things exist, (b) I want to change bad things and (c) some people ignore bad things. The song invokes half of the apocalypse and couldn’t muster a single plague.
The other song, “An Accident,” is honestly disturbing. The song’s narrator contemplates suicide in order to escape a cruel world while sparing loved ones some emotional pain by making it look like simple misfortune. They write a chilling song, but the context of the song is truly gut-wrenching. Ra Ra Riot drummer John Pike drowned in 2007 with no note, an apparent accident.
While “The Rhumb Line” is still their best album, Ra Ra Riot does outdo nearly a decade of their own material here. “Superbloom” is at least adventurous enough to try some new directions, and the experiments sometimes pay off. Bringing their indie styles and some new psychedelic influence on some other genres could make for a great, anything-goes type of album.
Considering the replete lyrics of running across a country in search of and away from love, the myriad, nostalgic, youthful styles would be a great fit. As is, the underwhelming atmospheric and generic alt rock songs make the record more forgettable. Perhaps when Ra Ra Riot blossoms again, they’ll finally reach a superbloom.