Need Your Light
Reviewed by: Max Miller
If you want to get technical about it, Ra Ra Riot were my introduction to “indie” culture. But not through their music. When I was in high school, a guy I had known since elementary school made a subtle transformation: Seemingly all at once, he adopted the kind of charmingly shy demeanor normally reserved for Michael Cera’s early work. Girls I knew were suddenly discussing how cute and mysterious he was. My life not being a cartoon from the ‘90s, I’m sure he wore many different t-shirts. But the one that sticks with me — the one I still mentally picture him wearing to this day — is his Ra Ra Riot shirt.
While I’ve criticized the blanket term indie before, it’s still useful when referring to a sea change in my perception of music that took place sometime in the late ‘00s. Ra Ra Riot were one of the first groups I can think of — along with the Shins and the Decemberists — that appealed to the same wide swath of teenagers that championed the equally nebulous label “alternative,” but which seemed markedly separate from the All-American Rejects and Paramores of the world. At their heart, Ra Ra Riot (as well as these other groups that fit neatly under the indie or alt umbrellas) simply write good pop songs. How and why they appeal to groups of young people that want to separate themselves from the mainstream is all coded more intangibly into appearances and atmosphere.
Ra Ra Riot have been around for a decade now, and Need Your Light is their fourth full-length. At ten songs and 36 minutes, it is a tight, compact indie-pop record. On nearly every cut, bassist Mathieu Santos and drummer Kenny Bernard lay down a groove that drives each song, with synth and guitar lines existing as little more than skeletons for vocalist Wes Miles to flesh out with his anthemic melody lines. Violinist Rebecca Zeller is Ra Ra Riot’s wild card, although her contributions — whether in the form of a noticeable bridge hook, as on the bouncy “Absolutely,” or as a more subtle means of instrumental window-dressing, as on “Call Me Out” — have become somewhat predictable within the band’s established format.
Need Your Light sits in a kind of timeless grey area. I could see someone listening to this kind of record five or six years ago, alongside some M83 or MGMT or Foster the People. A track like the bubblegummy “Bouncy Castle” doesn’t sound too dissimilar to some of the weirdo-pop of Animal Collective’s recently-released Painting With (although that’s really not a compliment to either group). Some teenager enamored with Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” could easily use Need Your Light as a stepping stone to, say, Future Islands. Hell, maybe the kids are already listening to that kind of stuff and don’t need a damned stepping stone. Maybe there’s someone in a high school classroom right now, charming everyone with their practiced affectations and a Porches t-shirt. If Ra Ra Riot no longer qualify as “what the kids are listening to,” which they still easily could from a strictly sonic standpoint, Need Your Light should at least appeal to the kids who were listening to them back in 2008, even though both they and the band are a tad more grown up now.