Ra Ra Riot’s debut album, “The Rhumb Line,” showcased an uncanny ability to transform frenetic, new-wave, baroque-funk grooves into an endlessly hormonal evening on the 3rd night of college, inexhaustibly expounding on fashionable existentialism in an effort to make out with the near-sighted brunette in Ray-Bans.
On their third studio album, “Beta Love,” they graduate to explore, not the endless possibility of undergrad, but the immediate necessity to sort things out afterwards. As an album, it’s the mental sonic equivalent of reading the string of apologetic text messages you sent your girlfriend after a workplace happy hour quickly became a jaunt to a string of college bars, where your hulking five-figure income alcoholically lubricated a conversation with some underage hipsters, who brought you back to their off-campus apartment for a THC-fueled conversation on Adorno’s theory of “aura,” before you realized how ridiculous you must have sounded junior year. Bathed in the record’s hollow glow, you fake an embarrassed smile and finally realize: You can’t go back to college.
The opening lyrics to the first track, “Dance With Me,” perfectly communicate this ennui of employment in a post-graduate lifestyle: “Oh I mostly feel I had a good day/It wasn’t that great.” The record seeks to communicate a “trans-human” ethos through a synth-pop aesthetic and warbling auto-tuned vocals, but instead seems to generate a feeling, not of transcending flesh to a cyborg existence, but of descending into an existence lacking in passion. The old, string-rich Riot has been replaced with hauntingly empty keyboards and frighteningly processed guitars (beautifully showcased in a heart-stopping solo on “That Much”). Strangely, the song-writing seems to borrow heavily from a soulful catalog (“Is it Too Much” all but quotes Marvin Gaye’s, “Sexual Healing;” The hook in “Beta Love” sounds eerily similar to The Supremes, “Baby Love”), as though it recognizes its emptiness and tries to fill the void with futile allusions to an era rich in nostalgia. In layman’s terms: The record is missing something, perhaps intentionally so.
One could say eons more about this record. One could wax for hours on Wes Mile’s voice, even longer on the immensely complex and engaging rhythms that energetically infect the album. To do so, however, would do a disservice to the athletic length of the album (barely over a half-hour). If “Rhumb Line” was their “The Bends,” “Beta Love” is their slimmed-down “Kid A.”