by Billy Ball
Ra Ra Riot
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
Wednesday, Oct. 30
The populist Vampire Weekend? That’s what a concertgoer behind me dubbed Ra Ra Riot as the Syracuse band tore through an hour-long set of baroque-tinged chamber pop last night at Carrboro’s Cat's Cradle. Not sure what that whole populist thing means—can you pay for a cello on a part-time salary?—but the polyrhythms and the elastic voice of frontman Wes Miles smack of the aforementioned bloodsuckers’ mega Afro-pop. Yet, that spectator was kind of right: For every moment of international studies student wonder here, there is a pounding, Arcade Fire-style singalong above, suggesting Ra Ra Riot can grow beyond the little chamber in their chamber pop. After all, the deceptive energy of their elegiac debut LP, 2008's The Rhumb Line, imparts a ferocious live charisma that won them scores of indie-admirers long before they’d even put songs to tape. And, now, they're making it all work at once.
By now, you might be familiar with the sad story behind the band's triumphant debut. Drummer John Pike drowned while the band prepped its hotly anticipated album in 2007. The tragedy would have crushed many young bands, but Ra Ra Riot soldiered on, filling in the missing pieces and beefing up their dramatic sound. Trouble looms large over the tunes, especially the ruminating "Dying Is Fine.”
"I wouldn't like death if death were good, not even if death were good," Miles sings in the chorus.
Geez. Usually bands have to release a dozen albums, break up, lose a member to drug addiction, reform, make a Wal-Mart fodder reunion LP and begin collecting Social Security checks before they have a reason to sound this dark. That’s no problem, though, as the world-weary songs of Ra Ra Riot suit them just fine, in the studio and on the road. To wit, the real highlights were Ra Ra Riot’s epics, like the churning "Ghost Under Rocks" and ’80s-inspired "Too Too Too Fast," made more grand by the band's brilliant mini-string section and pulsing rhythms.
So, sure death is on Ra Ra Riot's mind, but these songs and this excellent young band have a heart that beats strongly. Let's hope this is just the beginning.
Speaking of beginnings, opener Maps and Atlases are an especially hairy hybrid of Dirty Projectors and Kings of Leon who rock like a main act. Keep an eye on them.