REVIEW: Ra Ra Riot’s The Orchard [2010]

“Enjoying the expansive views of the countryside Mennonite community”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 marks the drop date for Ra Ra Riot’s sophomore release The Orchard. Accompanying Special Edition copies of the disc, available at Barsuk Records, is a making of documentary short by directors Taryn Gould and Emily Kowalczyk. Deciding to self-produce the disc without having an extra personality in the room to use as a crutch to ‘get things done’, the group went to upstate New York where guitarist Milo Bonacci’s family had a peach orchard up for sale. Able to use it for writing and recording, the group holed up and made house, collaborating, goofing off, and preparing their final tour to promote their debut The Rhumb Line, using it to play the new work and gauge audience reaction.

The film is very beautiful to look at with over-exposed visuals giving a dreamlike, ethereal quality to the imagery, sharply cutting from scene to scene with plenty of superimposing of frames and transitions like stars in the clear night sky morphing into stage lights. Gould and Kowalczyk appear to have been along for the entire ride, grabbing footage of soundboard maneuvering, demo sessions, bonfire building, concert action, and how everyone coped with a massive insect infestation. Band members Wes Miles (vocals), Mathieu Santos (bass), Bonacci, Alexandra Lawn (cello), Rebecca Zeller (violin), and Gabriel Duquette (drums) also get a chance to talk and editorialize about the experience and/or their beginnings in music. Whether straight-on interview shots of Duquette’s emotional release drumming style, tracking shots in the fields with Zeller as we discover her inability to play and talk at the same time, or Lawn gorgeously framed against the peach trees, dreaming of buying the property as a band abode, everyone has their moment to shine.

While not as poppy as The Rhumb Line, The Orchard holds its own as a worthwhile release. The riffs may not be as fun or hip-shaking as “Run My Mouth” or “Oh, La” and the verses may become repetitious in some tracks, but the mellower sound does lend itself well to the inclusion of a string section, as well as Miles’s distinctive voice. Tracks “Boy” and “Too Dramatic” recall the former disc, but they are in the minority. Sound engineer Andrew Maury speaks on how the song-writing process stems from each member discovering sounds to eventually combine into full-fledge songs later on. It is said that each work grows and evolves over time, but without the initial composition, there would be nothing to expand upon. You can’t help wonder what the album would have been if drummer and lead songwriter John Ryan Pike hadn’t mysteriously drowned after a 2007 show in Rhode Island.

Pike’s absence weighs heavily on the band with mention sprinkled throughout the beginning two-thirds of the film, reminiscing on his teaching Miles how to become a lyric writer or his air guitar technique. Not until the end do we see the tragedy’s effect as they drive to Hamilton, Masschusetts—his hometown—for the final show of their tour. In a memorable sequence of kinetic visuals and overlapped verbal expressions of loss, we feel the pain without letting it become a driving force to exploit for the benefit of the movie as a whole. The Orchard is about life and creating music to bring to the world. The music itself is a welcome evolution for Ra Ra Riot as a band maturing and the footage onscreen shows the comradery and respect at play as well as the raw power their live shows contain. I for one hope they find their way to Buffalo for a show as they’re surely a band on the cusp for greatness if they haven’t reached it already.

The Orchard 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

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