I stumbled onto Ra Ra Riot sort of by accident earlier this year at The Siren Music Fest at Coney Island. I hadn’t heard their self-titled EP, but I had heard the name and I figured I’d stick around to check them out before switching over to the other stage. I was happy I did. Their set of catchy, at times even danceable, chamber pop had literary references (E. E. Cummings and a hint of Harper Lee), smart lyrics, a Kate Bush cover, and memento mouris galore. The last of these makes sense given the tragic 2007 drowning of the band’s original drummer, John Ryan Pike.
Knowing about The John Ryan Pike tragedy at the core of the band adds a certain melancholy to all the songs. It makes lyrics like “Another day when I’m not there” or “The cusp and the fjords we wade through / It all falls apart” stick out, let alone songs titles like “Dying is Fine” or “Ghost Under Rocks.” Yet it also lends weight to similarly unassuming lyrics like “We have got to stick together.”
Four songs from the debut EP appear on the album, the standouts being “Each Year,” “Dying is Fine” and the timid little love song “Can You Tell.” The album version of “Each Year” is like the EP version after a steak dinner—it’s beefier, more up-tempo, and has more punch to it without losing the original’s polite danciness (if you’ve heard either version, you know what I mean). “Dying is Fine” is built around the Cummings line “Dying is fine but Death? O baby, I wouldn’t like Death if Death were good” (punctuation de-Cummings’d), and remains entirely upbeat the entire time.
The rest of the album is just as good a listen, and like the songs cited above, they’re all held together by the cello and violin work of Alexandria Lawn and Rebecca Zeller. Take their contributions away from the band and all that’s left is merely good, merely pleasant, and whatever other “merelys” you can think of. “Too Too Too Fast” sticks out for its synths, the song itself having maybe just a shade of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” While relatively straightforward, “Oh, La” has some of my favorite rhythm section work and string arrangements on the album. There’s a whole lot of likable tweeness on “St. Peter’s Day Festival” and the cover of “Suspended in Gaffa” is great. While lead singer Wesley Miles can’t achieve Kate Bush’s kooky, sudden octave shifts, the band makes the song much larger (particularly during the chorus) and their own.
I come back and back again to the song “Each Year,” with its bulbs planted on graves and the southern silhouettes, and that line about being a part of someone’s whole life. In the song there’s that shadow in the window, but like all shadows you can only see it because everything else around it is so wonderful, so warm, and so bright by comparison. And such is The Rhumb Line–so wonderful, so warm, and so bright.