Hey, gang; it’s been a while, and quite a few releases have been…well, released since last we spoke. Although Part II should include the more middle-of-the-road work, and III should commence a far more expansive celebration of the albums from February (and the latter weeks of January) that succeeded, first it’s best to get the duds that may easily leave you cold out of the way—thankfully few though they be.
Tainted Love: Ra Ra Riot – Beta Love
Indie rock quartet Ra Ra Riot has often been tossed about alongside Vampire Weekend—and, just as often, as exactly that: a tossed-off aside, an also-ran that never quite matched the success of its contemporary. While it’s pretty much indisputable that the Vampires found a bit more commercial breakthrough—sometimes literally so—what doesn’t wash as well is the pairing’s consistent undercurrent that Ra Ra Riot was just some sort of cardboard cutout clone. Before people began (inevitably?) turning on Vampire Weekend, they would cite the band’s reliance on South African music stylings (which, honestly, probably owed more to Paul Simon’s Graceland than Abdullah Ibrahim—not that there’s anything wrong with that) to set it apart. To its credit, Ra Ra Riot has its own, equally distinct signature flourish: the string work of Rebecca Zeller. In fact, this represents another distinction between Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend, this time a more evolutional one: whereas the latter’s sophomore album Contra somewhat (and somewhat distressingly) buried the African nuances that marked its debut, the former’s follow-up The Orchard only increased Zeller’s presence, to the great benefit of the band as a whole.
Which is why it’s so sad to see it all just about abandoned on Beta Love. With Ra Ra Riot embracing technology with gusto—and, sure, there’s nothing wrong with (or even avoidable about) musical development—what’s happened here feels more like simulation than innovation. It’s as if the band heard what made MGMT so Spectacular-ly (and short-lived-ly) popular back in 2008 and decided to suddenly do all that, all the time. But few groups, not even MGMT, are doing that anymore. Sure, the argument could be made that Passion Pit’s keeping the flame alive—but then, they’ve been at that campfire since the beginning, while Ra Ra Riot just wandered up to it out of the forest and decided to start belting out some sing-alongs without bothering to learn much in terms of technique beforehand. That’s maybe harsh. It’s certainly unfair to some of the great songs Beta Love still contains, like “Binary Mind” (where, hey, you can actually hear Zeller), “Is It Too Much?” (where you can’t, but strong songwriting is still strong songwriting, regardless of whether it’s played out on a violin on a synthesizer), and “That Much” (which manages to assemble together both, and actually do something fairly interesting with its electronic aspects). Even so, for a band that’s had such a hard and secluded row to hoe, buried in other acts’ shadows (note: do vampires even cast shadows? Must investigate...), this is the first time Ra Ra Riot truly feels like an imitation.
The Shipwrecks’s Tattered Sails: Silverstein – This Is How the Wind Shifts
Silverstein returns with its seventh full-length. That sentence alone is impressive enough, and especially so in a genre so notoriously conducive to premature breakups as post-hardcore: Bear Vs. Shark, The Receiving End of Sirens, Underoath, even alexisonfire, not to put Silverstein on quite the same par as any of those heavyweights, per se, but there is something to be said for the band to have such longevity, even with such mixed (though not always diminishing, either) returns. If nothing else, that history should also work to qualify criticisms of This Is How the Wind Shifts to a degree. Also in its favor: the album’s fairly ambitious conceit, telling the same story two different ways on sides A and B (or at least claiming to—the details and lyrics are a little vague on this front—but let’s be charitable and go along with it). It’s also a change of pace after last year’s interesting experiment (and aptly titled) Short Songs, which seemed to inject some much-needed energy back into the band by immersing them so thoroughly on the hardcore side of post-hardcore.
In fact, in terms of both story and scope, the closest comparison point for This Is How the Wind Shifts is 2009’s A Shipwreck in the Sand, itself a surprising late-game comeback for the band after its own predecessor (Arrivals and Departures) showed some serious signs of creative wear. But where Shipwreck sailed—telling an ambitious, album-spanning story, while varying its sound from furious just-this-side-of-hardcore (“Vices”) and melodic pop-punk (“I Knew I Couldn’t Trust You”) to dalliances with spoken word (the title track) and sweeping epics (the, once again, aptly titled “The End”), and still managing to fit together into one admirably unified (if somewhat over-ambitious) whole. Wind seems to have less variety, and—perhaps consequentially—fewer standout tracks. Even with the loss of decade-plus lead guitarist Neil Boshart, the band can still churn out some excellent melodic work (“Massachusetts,” “California,” “Departures”) right alongside its aggression (“In Silent Seas We Drown,” “Stand Amid the Roar,” “In a Place of Solace”)—and while the band commits whole-heartedly to neither fashion (and never really has), it’s reassuring to see them wearing the hats so snugly after all these years.
I realize now that, for what’s ostensibly a negative review, this sure has contained a lot of positive feedback. Sorry for the mixed message. The main take-away is that for all the good Wind displays, what it features precious little of is anything the band hasn’t done before; even the aforementioned highlight tracks can have their lineage clearly traced back to pieces past (and some, like “With Second Chances” or “A Better Place” even more so, to the point it becomes distracting). This is sort of acceptable in the sense that it shows a band with respect for its own history, but significantly less so in the sense of revealing a band looking toward its future. All in all, then, This Is How the Wind Shifts will probably stand as a solid middle-ground release from Silverstein, one that doesn’t quite have the out-of-the-gate freshness of When Broken Is Easily Fixed, the narrative cohesion of Shipwreck, or the unbridled energetic consistency of Short Songs. But it also sails above the ample exhaustion on display on albums like Arrivals and Rescue. The album may not quite live up to the promise of its own title; but, as the seventh album in the band’s career, the well-trod course it does chart offers its own set of rewards.