Customer Reviews: The Orchard
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on August 24, 2010
Following up an album as good as The Rhumb Line is a difficult task. Ra Ra Riot had a major element working against them: the untimely passing of John Pike, their original drummer and a great lyricist (who penned various songs for The Rhumb Line). They also faced the possibility of a dreaded sophomore slump. Now, I've read some early critiques of the album that say this is just more of the same from Ra Ra Riot... but really, is that a bad thing? Taking a closer look...

The Orchard - A haunting beginning to an eclectic chamber pop album, The Orchard works as a great intro and a fitting title track. (7/10)

Boy - This rambunctious new single falls into the same camp as their catchy single, "Can You Tell." It's hard not to sing along with the relatable, yelped chorus where Wes shows off his boundless vocal range. It's hard to disagree with this song. (10/10)

Too Dramatic - A live staple turned recording, this song is instantly memorable for its catchy 80's vocal melody (and VERY 80's keyboards). The staccato strings also chop in and out in very precise, deliberate strokes that demand attention. (9/10)

Foolish - This song sounds classic to me. I almost feel like I heard it on the radio at some point a long time ago. That's a very good sign. Everything just fits into place very well on this track. (10/10)

Massachusetts - This overlong white-guy reggae song about Massachusetts falls short both lyrically and musically. It's almost as if this song wanted to be something like "Diplomat's Son" but relied too heavily on repetition. It's not bad if you only listen to it for a couple minutes though. (5/10)

You And I Know - Alexandra Lawn steps up to the mic to make her debut and she croons over the Renaissance Fair-synth with a low, jazzy voice. The ethereal backups that come in and out help round out the song. It's a fine debut indeed. (8/10)

Shadowcasting - This one chugs along at a reasonable pace and seems like it would be perfect for blasting out of your radio while driving around during the summer. (8/10)

Do You Remember - The strings really seem to take center stage in this song. The breakdown with strings only draws attention to their intricacies. This song could very well signal the return of the "soft rock" genre, but in a good way. (8/10)

Kansai - Great drumming throughout, and a bouncy bass line keeps this song fun. I think it needs to grow on me though. (6/10)

Keep It Quiet - This is the album's masterpiece. It begins very minimalistic and then a little more than halfway through, a Vampire Weekend-like guitar riff comes in with the violin and cello, making the song truly heart wrenching. [I recommend everyone also check out the Boy Single version.] (10/10)

Overall, I think this album is a great representation of a band that is great at what they do and feel no need to give into gimmicks just to draw in trendy fair-weather fans.

Thanks for reading!
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on August 24, 2010
I love it when bands surprise me. For someone who thought Ra Ra Riot were like a lesser Vampire Weekend with a string section after 2008's so-so The Rhumb Line, I was ready to push through The Orchard and let it down gently. Then I listened to it, and lo and behold, a band I had written off ends up backhanding me across the face with one of the better albums I've heard all year. Previous fans of the band will no doubt be delighted to hear that singer Wes Miles still sounds like Ezra Koenig, if a little more prone to falsetto, and that the band's bouncy brand of pop-rock is still very much in evidence (just check out that ADD bass line on uber-catchy single "Boy"). But whereas The Rhumb Line was all meaty melodies and festival-ready sing-a-longs, The Orchard feels like a proper album of baroque pop - the songwriting is noticeably stronger, the band takes their time around the tunes rather than jumping headfirst into hooks, and the lovely strings of violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn seem far more integrated into the affairs here rather than the gimmick they at times appeared to be on their debut.

It's a record that knows that the best way to start an album is not a rookie move like throwing out your best song or first single, but to kick things off with a track that announces a new, determined direction instead. "The Orchard" is just that song, floating along ominous string chords and a pensive bass line without a hint of drums or guitar. The focus is purely on Miles, who sounds like a markedly more assured vocalist throughout the record and never as clearly as he does on "The Orchard." The strings at the forefront is something repeated throughout the album, from the way they add a melancholy note to the otherwise upbeat "Boy" to the way they arch and dip across melodies, putting their indelible stamp on songs like "Do You Remember" and "Kansai." The fact that Zeller and Lawn are the centerpiece of songs rather than a touch of color here or a flourish there makes The Orchard everything The Rhumb Line hinted at but never accomplished: the sound of a complete and full band, utilizing an array of sound and talents in a more organic way than many of their peers.

Not to say that the rest of the band suffers in comparison. Drummer Gabriel Duquette is the unsung hero here, laying down a number of intricate beats that always propel things forward but never overwhelm. Like the National's Bryan Devendorf or Bloc Party's Matt Tong, Duquette has some impressive chops (check out his subtle work on "Massachusetts"), but uses them more to build a rigid rhythmic framework than show off. Everyone contributes, whether it's consistently fantastic rhythm work, airtight melodies and subtler hooks, or Miles letting Lawn on the mic for the excellently Fleetwood Mac-ish "You And I Know." There are a few missteps; seriously cheesy synths midway through "Foolish" mar some perfectly good dream-pop, and the sluggish "Keep It Quiet" ends the album with a whimper rather than a bang. But perhaps that's to be expected - The Orchard is nothing if not a sharp left turn from the cheery, thumping pop of their debut, and ending it on its most plaintive note is sort of fitting. It's also everything I wanted from a sophomore effort: sophisticated, confident, surprisingly layered, and endlessly entertaining. It's always exciting when a band seems to get it and come into their own as a group - with The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot have finally created a distinctive identity all their own.
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on January 14, 2012
Relative to Ra Ra Riot's first album, The Rhumb Line, I would give this album a 4 out of 5. I find that some of the verve of the first album was lost as the band negotiated its transition to a smoother sound on this record. On the other hand, it is impressive that the band was able to produce a second record that doesn't sound just like the first but still manages to be cohesive and well executed. And relative to contemporary music as a whole, which is really the comparison we're interested in, The Orchard easily garners a 5 out of 5. Ra Ra Riot does a brilliant job of bringing together a variety of sounds, most notably strings, to craft a unique sound that slices through the seasonal indie trends. And they're as good or better live as they are in the studio--I received my introduction to the band when they opened for Death Cab for Cutie at a show in 2009, and I knew I'd stumbled upon a gem. Two years later I attended a brilliant solo show and confirmed that these guys are the real deal. You can respect this band because they can actually recreate what they do in a studio on stage. The lead singer, Wes Miles, has a great voice (no scratchy indie garbage) and it's really something to watch the six of them coordinate to produce their complex sounds.

My recommended tracks:
The Orchard: a dark, dreamy track that draws the listener into the rest of the record.
Boy: picks up the tempo and showcases the bassist's skills.
Massachusetts: Vampire Weekend's influence is palpable on this one, and it adds some variety to the middle of the record.
Do You Remember: the one builds up to a beautiful melange of vocals and strings.
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on November 24, 2010
I don't envy bands like Ra Ra Riot, who explode onto the scene with a compelling story and even more compelling music to back it up. Debut album "The Rhumb Line" was a joyous and beautiful collection of chamber pop. The band immediately drew comparisons to fellow indie darlings Vampire Weekend, though Ra Ra Riot owes less to world music and more to classical influences. Whereas Vampire Weekend went all in on their sequel, the lively Contra, Ra Ra Riot has dialed it back a bit. A pop band with strings, they decided that more strings and mid-tempo tracks, with less uptempo pop, was the way to go. While the backing strings are tighter and do bring more to the songs, adding a welcome texture to the album, the melodies don't rise quite as high as they did on "The Rhumb Line", and the verve and passion that brought that album to life is largely missing.

It seems that Ra Ra Riot intentionally avoided trying to match their previous work, and while it's good to see them avoiding the pitfall of cribbing off their own notes and making new songs indistinguishable from the old, what remains just isn't as inspiring. There are some solid tracks, and Alexandra Lawn's vocals on "You and I Know" are a welcome change of pace, but for the most part, "The Orchard" lacks the fire and passion of their debut. "Massachusetts" is repetitive and pedestrian, and many of the songs don't stick around in the listener's head once they're over. "Boy" is bouncy and fun, but large stretches of the album saunter forward at a languid pace. In measured doses this can work, and if the melodies are lights-out it can excel, but it langours in long doses without the substance to carry the album through.

It's certainly not a bad album, and if this were their first effort it would probably be viewed in a more positive light. Perhaps I'd be intrigued at this band's sound, wondering what a couple years of touring and recording could do to tighten it up. With great success comes great expectations, however, and that's the curse of "The Rhumb Line." Ra Ra Riot gets to live with having made a brilliant first album, and they must now spend the rest of their career figuring out how to match it, or at least come close to recapturing that rapturous magic. Their first follow-up isn't a complete failure, but it isn't really a success, either.
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on June 16, 2011
Let me first prelude this by saying, I LOOOVE this album. I absolutely love the sound of Ra Ra Riot.

Now, this album is a bit, I don't know how to say it, monotonous? It has not the sparkle of an album like, for example, Sufjan Steven's amazing album, "Illinois," or the previous Ra Ra Riot album. Honestly, there are a few tracks that are a bit boring. The first one, I personally love it occasionally, but normally, I just skip it. "Kansai," I believe in reference to the Kansai area of Japan (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara) is also one that is good on occasion, but otherwise wears me down.

"Boy," "Too Dramatic," "You and I Know," and "Keep it Quiet" are amazingly great, while the others are comparatively weak, not bad, just candles in a room of floodlights.
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on April 30, 2011
Most of the reviews of Ra Ra Riot's stuff is gushing with love for their sound. Those reviews encouraged me to buy their last two albums. I should have know from their last album that these guys, though clearly very talented, don't make music that I like. Contemporary stuff I do like are Explosions in the Sky, Phoenix, Local Natives, Mumford & Sons, Frieghtened Rabbit. I do not like Ra Ra Riot. I am just warning you, that even when a band, such as this one, is very talented and generally appealing to many others and in the same genre as other bands you might like, they are not guaranteed to make music you will like. I tried and listened many times to this and the previous album, without the desired result, which was to enjoy the music.
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on August 24, 2010
What a moody, compelling, thoroughly addictive set of idiosyncratic pop this is!

Ra-Ra Riot prove their presence on record store shelves and concert stages to be thoroughly justified with "The Orchard."
This is lo-fi acoustic pop that had edge, bite and verve with organic, fresh instrumentation, solid melodic hooks and confident, assured singing throughout an awesome, fast-moving ten tracks.

The lyrically adventurous "Kansai," for example, is wall-to-wall perfection courtesy of lead vocalist Wes Miles' sprawling, seemingly effortless tenor and guitarist Milo Bonacci's evocative, sublime guitar work. Lead single "Boy" is also rife with a spaced-out, New Order-esque arrangement and Miles' voice leading the way, swaying and soaring richly, and "Too Dramatic" is as cheeky as it is listenable.

Cellist Alexandra Lawson does a fine job taking over vocal duties for one song, the expressive, slightly oddball "You and I Know." Her delivery invites comparison to Stevie Nicks at the height of her popularity.

"Shadowcasting" is another fine highlight with its rhythmic arrangement from drummer Gabriel Duquette. If it were the lead single from the next U2 album it would become a major pop hit overnight, guaranteed. "Massachusetts" and "Do You Remember?" both have ingredients that make them ripe to cross over to mainstream radio. The latter is especially impressive with its evocative lyrics, urgent delivery and gorgeous work from group violinist Veronica Zeller.

The complex instrumentation, far-reaching vocals and hearty melodies rubbing against one another in impressive succession make "The Orchard" an extremely impressive disc. Ra-Ra Riot remain an individual, clearly hard-working group of musicians worthy of great praise, a highly impressive band that deserves to have a gold-selling album and a broader fan base.
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on May 29, 2011
I am not wont to confer rave reviews on albums, let alone on little known groups like this one. But after listening to The Orchard 4 or 5 times, I am smiling and breathless. These musicians are creative, rhythmic, lyrical and most important - original. Yes, there are traces of Vampire Weekend, Andrew Bird and Death Cab for Cutie, but their style is a unique amalgam and each song is rich enough to dig into at length. This album is special.

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on August 24, 2010
Ra Ra Riot's excellent 2008 debut was brushed aside by many at a time when Vampire Weekend had already made a splash that year with their not disimilar take on bookish, clever indie pop. Of course Ra Ra Riot had a more morbid fixation (not surprising given the history of the band), but nontheless, many wrote them off as just another Vampire Weekend. Big mistake: anyone that has spent some quality time with The Rhumb Line will know that these young folks from Syracuse have a whole lot to offer to any fan of pop music.

Now following up their debut, Ra Ra Riot have released The Orchard, a risky stylistic shift for a band that propelled their entire first album on pop hooks alone. Where The Rhumb Line was straightforward and charming, an immediate pleasure, The Orchard is laid back and subtle, and demands multiple listens to give up the goods. Though the pop remains firmly in place in tracks like "Boy" and "Foolish," tracks such as the title track are slow and difficult to crack. The complexity of songwriting on The Orchard makes it a rewarding nut to crack, but for those with little patience, the album may be written off as slow and lacking in immediate pleasure-center rewards. For fans of Ra Ra Riot, this is another welcome addition to their oeuvre, and for first time listeners, start with The Rhumb Line and work your way up to The Orchard.
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on October 17, 2010
I see people mentioning that this album is complex and it takes a few listens, which i agree with - to get it UP to the two stars I'm giving it. The Rhumb Line was refreshing, smart, and dramatically satisfying - so much that it set a very high expectation for their follow-up, The Orchard. And unfortunately it's the band's songwriting that falls short of that expectation. Every song has potential to be as good as any on their first album, but each track, in it's own way, misses every opportunity to be truly satisfying. I wanted so badly to like it - I gave this album about 10 or 15 listens before finally just giving up, feeling shorted by a band that I thought had the potential to be one of the top 5 of the last 5 years. It's actually 2 1/2 stars, so if you're a fan, buy it to support them and be familiar with the songs for a live show. But in the future, I sincerely hope that we see a return to the poppy, hooky, different, deep-feeling brilliance that fueled their first major label album, and was left far behind on their second.
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