When Ra Ra Riot broke out with their debut album The Rhumb Line in 2008, they fashioned themselves as a brainy, bright-eyed chamber-pop group, freshly armed with university B.A.s and carefully curated record collections featuring heroes like Talking Heads and Kate Bush.
My, have things changed. After releasing 2010′s somewhat underwhelming Chris Walla-produced The Orchard, the group is down to a quintet (cellist Alexandra Lawn has left) and they’ve overhauled their sound from sweet, string-soaked rock into electronic-pop explorations on Beta Love.
The sonic shift makes sense enough — singer Wes Miles collaborated with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij for the bedroom synthpop project Discovery in 2009 — but not all of it works. The title track relies too heavily synth while “Is It Too Much” ruins Miles’s beautiful, pinched falsetto with vocodor-type effects. And bassist Matthieu Santos — who’s limber lines on The Rhumb Line gave their tunes an undeniably kinetic bounce — also seems too buried in the mix throughout.
But Ra Ra Riot’s ability to adapt to nano-second-shifting tastes in indie is admirable, and there are moments where their fusion of strings-and-things with ones-and-zeroes studio trickery hit the bullseye. “That Much,” for instance, with its jazz-funk pulse and absolutely bonkers guitar solo, comes on like the most sincere Steely Dan song ever — and serves as a nice reminder that Ra Ra Riot are still a group worth rooting for.