Ra Ra Riot
w/ Mates of State, Guards, Dec. 9, $16-$18, Arch Street Tavern, 85 Arch St., Hartford, (860) 246-7610, manicproductions.org.
You have to wonder if the term "2.0," as it's used to describe the second version of anything, should have been retired by now. But it probably applies to Ra Ra Riot's forthcoming album, Beta Love, a cyberpunk-inspired swerve in a new direction.
The former Syracuse, N.Y.-based band became a four-piece after the departure of cellist and founding member Alexandra Lawn earlier this year. (Drummer Gabriel Duquette, a West Hartford native, left in 2011; their current drummer is Kenny Bernard.) The remaining members — singer Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci, bassist Mathieu Santos and violinist Rebecca Zeller — teamed with producer Dennis Herring, known for his work with Jars of Clay, Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello and Wavves, at his studios in Oxford, Miss. The new album arrives early next year.
"We've been joking that it feels like our first record," bassist Mathieu Santos told the Advocate while driving to a show in Philadelphia. "We've been together so long and we've arrived at this new point... We wanted to reconsider our approach on this record and to be open to new changes... It was not the direction [Lawn] wanted to go in."
Opening salvos speak volumes: compare Beta Love's first track, "Dance With Me," which wastes exactly zero time establishing itself in a wash of radio-friendly digital textures, booming sing-along choruses and hyperactivity, with the timid staccato strings and plucked McCartney bass of their 2010 album, The Orchard. Gone are chamber-pop leanings and cramped arrangements, replaced by libido and adrenaline. Message received: excess bulk trimmed, old skin shed, it's fun time. The new sounds on Beta Love might alienate some Ra Ra Riot fans, but not many; it's a safe bet that they've been waiting for this.
The Orchard was produced by the band and sound engineer Andrew Maury. "That was exciting and fulfilling," Santos said. "This time around we consciously wanted to bring someone in to help us and do things. Our attitude was just being open." The desire to work with Herring and to record down south was their way of throwing everything up in the air at once. "When we found the right person to work with, we had to trust him. When we meet Dennis, it felt like the right match. We had this chemistry right away... We gave ourselves up to him."
In addition to the records he had worked on, one thing that impressed Santos was the way Herring talked about corralling energy. "We've always considered ourselves a live band," Santos said. "We always tried to capture that on recordings and always failed. Dennis knew that about us and knew that we wanted to do something more energetic, like our live shows." The new sound, paradoxically, posed new challenges for live performance. "For the first time we are playing with backing tracks... So far it's been an exciting challenge because we've never had to switch up our live elements. It's been fun for us to reapproach our live set."
So, how do you integrate acoustic instruments into what's essentially an electronic texture? "It was definitely at the forefront," Santos said. "That was another issue in the past where we've felt like, at the point of arranging, sort of like everyone was playing their instruments all the time on every song. This time we wanted to be more conscious of space and how we used it and allocated it, trying to be more frugal with our playing, doing only what was necessary. It helped us, not feeling that pressure anymore... The string arrangements are more powerful and stand out even more."
Ra Ra Riot, who seem unlikely to shake the college-rock mantle anytime soon, began this tour in Syracuse, where they met as students. They'll be in Hartford at Arch Street Tavern on Dec. 9, with Connecticut's Mates of State (who similarly release albums on Barsuk Records) and the NYC-based Guards.
"Group dynamics can be really funny and fickle," Santos said. "We've had so many different lineups over the years... I think just this year the chemistry has felt a lot different and better in a lot of ways... We've finally gotten to a place that we've been trying to go for several years."