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Saturday, February 9, 2013 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.
Ra Ra Riot’s new album is a pleasing radio-ready departure
By Charlie Zaillian
Special to The Seattle Times
In Greek alphabetical terms, the title of “Beta Love” — the latest from Ra Ra Riot, who play Seattle’s Neptune on Friday — is misleading. It’s not the upstate New York orchestral popsters’ second album — it’s their third.
As programming jargon goes, however, it’s perfect. The group is testing out a brand-new sound, made almost entirely on computers.
While the decision to swap sweeping strings for bleeps and bloops has met some middling reviews, they’re unlikely to faze the young band considering what it’s already endured.
In 2007, the members had just finished college and were on a midsummer tour when drummer John Pike, who also composed songs, disappeared after a gig in Providence. R.I. His body was found in a lake. Pike was 23; the case remains unsolved.
Intent on preserving their friend’s memory, singer-keyboardist Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci, bassist Mathieu Santos, cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller not only endured but triumphed with 2008 debut “The Rhumb Line.”
All bookish lyrics and driving rhythms, baroque arrangements with New Wave synthesizers, “Rhumb” and 2010 follow-up “The Orchard” — both issued by Seattle’s influential Barsuk Records — established the group as one to watch.
“Orchard” charted at No. 39 on Billboard and tours with Cold War Kids and Barsuk label-mates Death Cab For Cutie elevated the band’s profile, but 2012 dealt Ra Ra Riot another curve when Lawn, whose emotive cello tugged heartstrings on the two LPs, resigned.
In response, the group rebooted. The insistent big beats of the “Beta Love” opener, “Dance With Me,” promptly confirm that the chamber-pop phase has passed. While earlier material featured some digital accouterments, synths are now the focal point, with strings pared down to Zeller’s lone violin.
Miles takes several surprising vocal turns during the 11-song set, twisting his trademark vibrato into an untamed Prince falsetto on the cheeky “What I Do For U” and echoing Maroon 5’s Adam Levine’s soulful croon on carefree single “When I Dream.”
Aiming to reach a wider audience at the risk of alienating its existing one, Ra Ra Riot rolls the dice with “Beta Love.” Fans who dug the band’s old sound might cringe at its unabashed radio-readiness and robot-love motif, but it could also serve as an “indie” gateway for new mainstream listeners.
R.R.R. 3.0 is still in its beta phase, but the band — now a lean four-piece — will attempt to correct glitches through extensive touring. Its Neptune gig marks the second date on a monthlong North American itinerary, directly after a Far East jaunt that included Jakarta, Taipei and Tokyo shows.
Charlie Zaillian writes about music for The Seattle Times.
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