"Beta Love," Ra Ra Riot (Barsuk)
Ra Ra Riot’s “Beta Love” works better as a concept than as an actual album.
The pop confection, set for release Jan. 22, is lovingly concocted by the quartet from Syracuse, N.Y., and at first blush it’s akin to a spectacular, one-of-a-kind birthday cake. But dig in, and you’ll find inconsistencies – uneven textures, half-baked spots, areas that are either too sweet or not sweet enough.
Fortunately, there are also delicious parts where the inventive components are mixed just right.
It’s tricky and potentially misleading to compare a creative band like Ra Ra Riot to others, but as a general reference point, imagine the Scissor Sisters going back in time a few decades to whip up a sound that hybridizes Devo, Bronski Beat and perhaps a little ska.
Some “Beta Love” tracks seem like mere flights of fancy – chopped up pieces of disparate songs glued together in incongruent little package like the fractured “When I Dream,” the anachronistic “For Once” and the backward-feeling “That Much” that essentially implodes. Yet sometimes the weirdness works, as with a “Wilderness” that wobbles in and out of videogame mode, offering soulful moodiness in between, and with a bizarre “What I Do for U” that’s dominated by the hypnotic, heavy bass reverb of old-school hip-hop and improbably punctuated by distant, mewling vocals.
The upshot is that “Beta Love” is more endearing than infectious, the surprising twists of its buoyant arrangements generally commanding attention, though not inviting the audience all the way in. Lead singer Wes Miller is part of the solution and part of the problem : His singing is often a fairly straightforward balance to the zig-zagging sound, yet his refrains only occasionally work as serviceable hooks.
Ultimately, “Beta Love” will keep its listeners modestly engaged, yet leave them feeling vaguely unfulfilled.
Rating (five possible): 3-1/2