The Beauty in Ra Ra Riot's Sound
Indie-rock fans may be used to seeing a cellist sharing a stage with the drums and guitar by now, but they're definitely not used to seeing one who looks like Alexandra Lawn of Ra Ra Riot.
In the field of sex-symbol cellists, Lawn has no equal.
Understandably, the subject makes her bashful.
Ra Ra Riot
Ra Ra Riot perform Thursday, November 3, at Granada Theater.
"Yes, I hear guys shout things in between songs," Lawn sighs.
Professions of love, requests for her hand in marriage and cruder expressions of admiration — it's all par for the course at shows. Not surprisingly, these pinings are even more pronounced online. At least one fan video posted on YouTube ignores every band member, including lead singer Wes Miles, so that it can focus squarely on Lawn as she sways her hips and tosses her chocolate-colored hair while banging out chords on her electric cello.
"It's a little awkward — and weird," Lawn says of her unintended gift for transforming otherwise repressed indie-rock fans into catcalling construction workers. "I would much rather they admire me for my music."
Points, then, for the next sly suitor who belts out "Kick-ass cello!" during a mid-concert pause.
But, truly, it's Lawn's cello with Rebecca Zeller's violin that separate Ra Ra Riot's sound from their indie-rock cohorts. And on the band's most recent album, The Orchard, released last year, those chamber-orchestra instruments assume an even higher profile than on Ra Ra Riot's debut album, The Rhumb Line.
True enough, The Orchard has encountered the usual turbulence that comes with a sophomore album — lukewarm reception from critics and some fans who say that there aren't as many catchy pop refrains this time around. Lawn, of course, thinks of the band's newest release in much different terms.
The Rhumb Line was a moment. The Orchard, Lawn says, is "a culmination."
But there are noticeable differences: While the first album was destined to blare from dorm rooms coast to coast and grow an adoring fan base, The Orchard's more subdued tone makes it better-suited for sporting headphones and enjoying a reflective, introspective mood. No surprise, then, that the record was made while the band was in virtual seclusion at an actual orchard in upstate New York, not far from the Syracuse University campus where Ra Ra Riot was founded three and a half years before.
Such pastoral environs are often ideal for escaping the pressure that comes with a sophomore album for a critically acclaimed band. But plucking peaches and mingling with Mennonite farmers is not a formula conducive to making irresistible pop. And the songs that came out of the band's time on the farm are tinged by melancholy, which may have something to do with the absence of John Pike, the band's original drummer, who drowned in June 2007 following a concert afterparty in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
Pike had helped craft some of the band's most infectious songs, and it's evident that Ra Ra Riot wanted to pay tribute to him on The Orchard, not just with the occasional lyric but by avoiding any sense that it was looking for a new member who could do a convincing imitation. Naturally, the band has had an awkward time finding Pike's replacement. In early 2010, they announced that original replacement drummer Gabriel Duquette would be leaving the band. Duquette posted a letter on the band's website thanking the fans and his bandmates, suggesting that the parting was amicable. Lawn confirms as much, although she seemed eager to avoid the subject in favor of expressing optimism about the newest drummer, Kenneth Bernard, whom the members know through a contact at their record label.
Yet another new wrinkle is the emergence of a new, part-time singer: Lawn herself, who borrowed the lead-vocal role from lead singer Wes Miles for the elegant ballad, "You and I Know." She was encouraged by Miles to do so, but she admits once feeling a bit anxious about singing lead and particularly squeamish about performing the song live — a prospect that she said required that she "grow the balls."
Judging by the fact that "You and I Know" has been regularly appearing on the band's set lists, Lawn has managed to grow those, um, balls.
Anything to avoid catcalls.
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