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Ra Ra Riot - Superbloom Music Album Reviews

Their latest album aims for life-or-death melodrama, but amid the layered arrangements and slick songwriting, Ra Ra Riot seem to once again have lost their sense of identity.

Ra Ra Riot are perhaps doomed to permanent association with a certain crop of verbose, precocious pop-rock acts, dating to around the time of their unofficial debut at the 2006 CMJ festival. But few of their peers have had Ra Ra Riot’s longevity—last year, the band toured in honor of the 10th anniversary of their debut LP—and over the past decade, they’ve explored electronic sounds and more ambitious production techniques, to mixed results. On 2016’s Need Your Light, they seemed to finally strike a balance between Beta Love’s outlandish synth pop and The Orchard’s overwrought orchestration. The band enlisted a litany of producers and writing collaborators for their latest album, Superbloom, but amid the layered arrangements and slick songwriting, Ra Ra Riot seem to once again have lost their sense of identity.


Named for a botanical phenomenon that produces an abundance of wildflowers, Superbloom is awash in bright excess. Heavily reverbed backing vocals and larger-than-life synth lines provide enough flourishes to drown out any attempt at restraint. “Belladonna” begins innocently enough, with Rebecca Zeller’s staccato strings and a buzz of handclaps and kick drums. But the chorus drops any pretense of subtlety, introducing a rollicking bassline, a stack of backing synths, and a chorale of “ohs” befitting of a “We Are the World” cover. It feels unwarranted, even before the Japanese spoken-word interlude. “Bitter Conversation,” the first side’s other biggest attraction, opens with a faux radio-dial effect and crashes into a chorus of DayGlo synths. In a song already crammed with ornamentation, even a little extra Auto-Tune is enough to be exhausting.

But Ra Ra Riot can’t commit to their dance-pop tendencies, either. The band recorded Superbloom in multiple sessions on opposite coasts, and the record struggles to bridge the differences. Songs recorded in Los Angeles with frequent collaborator Rostam Batmanglij tend towards a kind of weightless decadence. But tracks recorded in frontman Wes Miles’ childhood home in New Jersey take on an almost self-consciously gritty streak. “Endless Pain/Endless Joy,” a claustrophobic punk number that morbidly puts Miles “at the Sandman’s door,” is full of crunchy riffs and screams. After three tracks that rival the Cinematic Orchestra in their instrumental overload, it feels like whiplash.

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According to Miles, Superbloom represents an East Coast band’s vision of California. Its lyrics, crafted with a legion of co-writers boasting impressive pop CVs, are starry-eyed Hollywood clichés: beautiful women on Italian motorcycles, working-class love affairs, dramatic scenes of lovers driving off into the night. They aim for the life-or-death melodrama of Lana Del Rey (Superbloom co-writer Dean Reid worked on several songs on Lust for Life), then collapse into platitudes (“love is blind”) or pleas to “make love.” Even Miles’ lithe falsetto cannot conjure the necessary theatrics.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its tightly wound riffs and booming drumline, closer “A Check for Daniel” finally finds a comfortable fit. Driven by distorted guitar and a frantic vocal, it recalls the eagerness and excitement that distinguished Ra Ra Riot when they first appeared. It’s a welcome jolt of anxious energy, evidence that the band need not sacrifice authenticity for enthusiasm.


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