Instead of the inventive pop hooks they wield so effortlessly elsewhere, Ra Ra Riot's debut full-length The Rhumb Line opens on a forbidding note, with the dark tonalities and hard-edged rhythms of "Ghost Under the Rocks." Over a distorted bass, the drums unleash an unceasing flurry of ornamentation, as strings and guitars pile up dense, brooding layers of sound. "We had sort of gotten this reputation as just being a bouncy fun band or something," says guitarist Milo Bonacci. "We wanted to catch people off guard."
A year ago, Ra Ra Riot were a youthful indie band from Syracuse with a solid EP. But even then, the group's earnest yet jubilant songs seemed to belie a tragedy: the sudden passing of drummer and songwriter John Pike in mid-2007. While others have filled in on drums—most recently Gabriel Duquette—Pike is still a very real presence in the band.
"You can't start playing with a new drummer without thinking about or referencing why you're playing with a new drummer in the first place," says Bonacci. "If John was still around with us, he'd still be in the band and everything." Indeed, Pike's fingerprints are all over The Rhumb Line, released on Barsuk Records in August. He contributed lyrics and music to many songs, including the oddly celebratory single "Dying Is Fine," which ended up seeming near-prophetic.
Another presence also haunts The Rhumb Line, one that's a bit surprising for a bunch of musicians in their early 20s: Kate Bush. The album includes a cover of Bush's "Suspended in Gaffa," and traces of her influence turn up, such as a hint of "Cloudbusting" in Ra Ra Riot's brooding "Winter '05," dominated by Alexandra Lawn's cello and Rebecca Zeller's violin.
While learning covers to fill time at an early gig, one song the band learned was Bush's seminal "Hounds of Love." While vocalist Wesley Miles had long been a fan, this tune was the band's real introduction to Bush. "Once we started playing that song, we all became more interested, and we have a lot of admiration and respect for her as an artist," says Bonacci. "For me, her songwriting or the structures of her songs are referenced a lot in the way we put things together."
While tracking The Rhumb Line, they recorded "Suspended in Gaffa" to use as a potential B-side for a single. "We never planned to put it on the album or anything," he says, "but one thing led to another."
Bush's influence also helps in understanding the sonic and lyrical density of Ra Ra Riot's music—a link to both ornate art-rock and some of the more original pop artists of the 1980s. "Too Too Too Fast," for instance, opens with proggy keyboards reminiscent of mid-period Rush, while Miles' rhythmic vocal delivery and Mathieu Santos' bass lines both seem to nod to The Police. On the more poppy clap-along love song "Can You Tell," the band sounds like a modern-day Smiths.
And like any good art-rock band, there's an album concept of sorts. The Rhumb Line's title comes from the Pike-penned "St. Peter's Day Festival," and refers to "a pub in Gloucester, Mass.," near Pike's hometown, says Bonacci. "So it's got more of a personal meaning to him, and therefore, it has a pretty personal meaning for us." At the same time, he notes that it's a nautical navigation term, "the path that a vessel will make if it travels in a constant cardinal direction." Over time, "it went from being the name of a restaurant, to a lyric, to this sort of metaphor for where we're going in the world."
Where they're going right now is out on the road for nine months, followed by a break to write a follow-up album they've begun thinking about "in very general terms," says Bonacci. "I think we still have a lot of learning and experimenting to do. We'll see what happens the next time around."
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