Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
Perhaps it's okay to romanticize and fictionalize the place in central New York where Ra Ra Riot drafted out the carriage of what was to become this record, "The Orchard." It might do us well to persuade ourselves of the visages and the greenery that likely appear still, and as vividly in the photographs that they've kept for themselves, as mementos of time spent. It might do us even better to understand right from the start that such visions as the ones you're about to hear from these six young men and women, do not just come to the patient, but rather, they come to those who are contributing and communing with them in an endless tit-for-tat. With this sophomore long-player, the band (made up of vocalist Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci, bassist Mathieu Santos, violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn) has made its most complete, dynamic and inspired piece of work, giving us a tour of a landscape that offers no simple conclusions, but intriguing doors to look behind and windows to hoist up from sticky, painted shut panes, as if mysterious human drama has been proven to ripen in open, fresh air - the kind that you'd cool your pies with.
"The Rhumb Line," the band's debut full-length was released in the summer of 2008 and it brought with it some beautiful and sparkly ruminations on the fragile things in life - namely life, death and love - and much critical praise. It was an album that brought them to this time and this orchard, obviously older and with a sound that's been honed over four grueling years.
There, in Penn Yan, N.Y., a village of just over 5,000 people, there are a handful of you-pick-em farms to choose from. There's the Sugar Shack to go to for those blueberry hounds and there are fresh strawberries to be had just down the road from there, but a family friend of Bonacci's lend the band access to its peach farm for an extended amount of time in the summer of 2009 for the initial writing of the majority of the songs that appear on this album - some of which, including "Too Dramatic" and "Foolish" had been out and about in one form or another for some time, and others were completed when the group later retreated to Black Dog Studios in upstate New York to actually record. The land and the space, a setting where fruit-needy people came with their own baskets to collect and that likely involved an early-rising, touring drummer and album contributor Gabriel Duquette lacing up his running sneakers for a jog around the still dewy grounds and the hoops and mallets from an unfinished game of croquette remainders from the previous day, gave form and meaning to the darkly hued, but awed thoughts that are drizzled like cool icing over the top of these complete sonic flashes.
Surrounded by old towns and old families, who had been there for generations, they played and worked in a natural setting that has a tendency to rip anyone of their vanities or self-importance, just leaving you to hear the birds as they stir in their nests at night and the crickets as they pace to their spots in their nightly pulpits. We're greeted with ghosts and admissions in the lyrics of Miles, that seem to reflect the greater uncertainty that plagues those of us who find interactions to be eternally shaky, teetering and flimsy. "The Orchard" is a stunning picture of how small of an amount of the whole picture we're given access to. The title song is based on the Anton Chekov short story, "The Black Monk," whose main character is ill and advised by a doctor to spend a spring and summer in the countryside, thinking that this is the kind of recovery needed. A friend offers a place that the narrator describes as this: "The old park, laid out in the English style, gloomy and severe, stretched for almost three-quarters of a mile to the river, and there ended in a steep, precipitous clay bank, where pines grew with bare roots that looked like shaggy paws; the water shone below with an unfriendly gleam, and the peewits flew up with a plaintive cry, and there one always felt that one must sit down and write a ballad." One can't help but think of Penn Yan acting as a similar setting, only without the hallucinations that idle people sometimes see when the white noise they've grown accustomed to is gone. Living in the country with his friends, Miles couldn't help but to think of this story and write, "Oh, I imagined things/Through cold eyes asleep/And I won't think back more than I do/My life is dull/And my body aches/All this blood in my mouth/Makes me hate/How we both end up," making the body and this present life feel like a strange burden that's out of our hands. It's a mental place that gave Lawn the beginnings to "You And I Know," her haunting Stevie Nicks-ish debut on lead vocals, a marvelous take on the impossibility of the heart, which most people foolishly take only as an improbability.
The personal idiosyncrasies of every member are strewn throughout these songs - the inventiveness and colorfulness of Santos playing at the forefront (heavy and prominent), the inconspicuous and essential textures and leads of Bonacci, the lines that Miles gives sweet wings to, the popping and intricate beats of Duquette and the moving phrasing of strings from Lawn and Zeller - making an album that touches so gently a place where the mystical meets the skin and the bones, where living is as close to mythological as we can ever expect it to be. It's this place where a gaze to the sky is all humbleness, where the work toward a peaceful quietude or a graceful understanding is never done.
Ra Ra Riot Official Site