words by JEAN-LUC MARSH
In order to understand Beta Love, one must first understand a bit of the history of Ra Ra Riot. Since 2010’s The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot has been in a state of flux. Cellist Alexandra Lawn departed from the group in early 2012, serving as the catalyst for the transition from baroque to electro-pop. Beta Love is Ra Ra Riot’s third full-length release, and its first foray into the hitherto uncharted hinterland of synthesizers, something made excruciatingly clear as the album progresses.
Opening track “Dance With Me” is an early indicator of what the album contains, with the lines “I mostly feel I had a good day / It wasn’t that great” and an unexpected instrumental around the two-minute mark that incorporates a bevy of enigmatic electronic chirps. The contradictory lyrics and abrupt interlude are the first in a series of switchbacks that detract from the cohesiveness of Beta Love, making it feel less like an album, and more like an assortment of songs united only by the liberal use of synthesizers.
“Binary Mind” and “Beta Love” pick up where the opening track failed, and instead of floundering underneath the thick theme of technology, flourish. The former is the most upbeat song on the album; a firecracker fueled by a chorus composed of a vivacious electric guitar riff, violins, and perfectly deployed clapping. The title track continues on the energy of its predecessor, channeling it into a slower, synth-driven beat made sublime by vocalist Wes Miles’ stratospheric falsetto, supplemented by deftly applied auto-tune. “I will find my beta love / when I find my beta love / you will be my beta love” he cries, each iteration of the title phrase higher than the last, daringly ascending the register. Both tracks are album standouts, and demonstrate the true potential of Ra Ra Riot in the strange new world of electro-pop.
The adrenaline stops there though, and the remaining eight songs of Beta Love melt into an interminable and unpredictable, yet reliably underwhelming half hour, beginning with the comatose “Is It Too Much.” Conversely, “What I Do For U” is a headache-inducing track that mercifully lasts less than two minutes. The juxtaposition of a menacing bass with Miles’ now whiny, lycanthropic howl dizzies and disorients. Refreshingly, “When I Dream” steers clear of the falsetto trap, and finds Miles at his most smooth. The restraint is desperately needed and pairs nicely with the tone of the most emotional track of the album. However, the promise of being gently carried through the remainder of Beta Love is shattered by “That Much.” Whereas “What I Do For U” had the power to bestow migraines, “That Much” is the musical equivalent of a train crash. It is easily the most obnoxious three minutes on the album, ambushing the listener with jarring samples of electric guitars on the fritz. “Wilderness” is welcome for the sole fact that it is not “That Much,” beginning with eerie atmospherics reminiscent of something from The Weeknd, but then devolving into a sonic schizophrenia alternately composed of undulating synths and insufferable buzzing.
Beta Love makes it abundantly evident that electronic music is new territory for Ra Ra Riot. One could make the erroneous assumption that Lawn’s leaving is the reason for the subpar product, but “Binary Mind” and the eponymous “Beta Love” prove that what remains of Ra Ra Riot still has the potential to do something great. However, two good songs are not enough to save a sinking ship, and Beta Love is often dysfunctional, clunking along solely with the help of elapsed time and a loss of attention from the listener. The robotic theme of the album is applied heavy-handedly to the point that it becomes tacky, and the constant switching between quiet and cacophonous leaves the listener with a case of sonic whiplash. For an album that embraces the theme of technology, Beta Love sounds stuck in the past, belonging to an era in which the novelty of overusing the synthesizer has not yet worn off. [C]