A funny thing happens when you take away Ra Ra Riot’s cello: They constantly sound as if they are one weird day away from being a Devo parody band — not that it wouldn’t sound great.
Electronic synthmongers, typically, go for one of two sounds: futuristic, Tron-influenced Tokyo gangland, or discotheque, neon-and-MDMA night at your favorite gay club. Essentially, Daft Punk or Robyn, both of which are excellent and perfect in every way. But with Beta Love, Syracuse’s Ra Ra Riot skews gleefully close to a 1993 beeper commercial starring Weird Al Yankovic.
And I love it.
To be clear: The band still features violinist Rebecca Zeller, as is readily apparent from listening to “Is It Too Much.” Beta Love, though, embraces a willfully cheesier sound than the Ra Ra Riot’s previous releases. It’s as if they replaced cellist Alexandra Lawn with Keyboard Cat, and that kitty is just wailin’ on the MIDI. (Don’t tell Keyboard Cat what violin strings are made of.)
When an album kicks off with a toe-tapper like “Dance With Me,” it’s always a good sign. Invoking the arcane powers of LCD Soundsystem from the first verse and through the bridge and chorus, the track gives a good indication of Beta Love’s raison d’être. We are here for a little lovelorn dance party, and we are wearing cheap nylon windbreakers.
“Binary Mind” is an energetic android’s lament, while “Beta Love” the song is a well-formed pop ode, similar in robotic imagery, that hews to the Passion Pit school of falsetto emotion. The “Tin Man with the clockwork heart” theme that unites Beta Love doesn’t get an in-depth exploration, necessarily, but it’s worn comfortably. Because, truly, who hasn’t been able to “forget how lonely feels”? We’re all a little over-programmed sometimes.
“Angel Please” and “That Much” offer a little AM radio-style throwback feel, like Ariel Pink without the psychotropic substances/foaming at the mouth. “When I Dream,” meanwhile, is cyberpunk R&B with a smirk; imagine Bat For Lashes and The xx having sexual tension that never really amounted to anything, because Bat For Lashes was going through a really big Radiohead phase and was listening to “There, There” way too much.
Throughout, Beta Love recalls the cheekiness of Ludo on a slightly moderately cheeky day. Fortunately, there’s just enough sincerity behind that synthpop to keep it from being empty. Ra Ra Riot is here to ask: What are these hue-man ee-moe-shuns, and how do I dance about them?
P.S. The visualizer on their website, rarariot.com, is choice.
(1) “Dance With Me”
(2) “Binary Mind”
(3) “Beta Love”
(6) “Angel, Please”
(8) “When I Dream”