For current UCSB students and a year’s worth of grads, the name Ra Ra Riot is sure to ring a bell. Back in 2009, after UCSB registered more voters than any college in the country, the band—along with indie superstars Death Cab for Cutie—played a well deserved prize performance to a packed Thunderdome of proud Gauchos. For attendees, the night was as much a concert as it was a celebration of the school’s enormous achievement, and Ra Ra Riot’s infectious energy and soaring, violin-fueled repertoire seemed a near-perfect soundtrack to the party.
Since then, the band (consisting of vocalist Wes Miles, bassist Mathieu Santos, guitarist Milo Bonacci, cellist Alexandra Lawn, violinist Becca Zeller, and drummer Gabriel Duquette) has hardly slowed down, releasing two EPs through Barsuk Records, touring everywhere from the U.S. and Canada to Europe and Japan, and earning more accolades and big-name comparisons (think Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend) than even they can stomach.
This Wednesday, the Syracuse University natives return to Santa Barbara with a new full-length album, an undeniably “matured” sound, and a whole headlining set’s worth of tunes. For their sophomore effort, the band seized the opportunity to try something new and holed up in a friend’s peach farm in upstate New York to write, and later record, what would become The Orchard. “We’re all pretty easily distracted,” violinist Zeller says of the experience. “It was definitely a good way to get out of the city, away from everything. Also, just being afforded everything that nature has to offer really helped the process.”
Rather than brimming with flowery images of brisk wilderness walks, though, The Orchard goes the nonliteral route, and finds the band expanding their sound to new heights and depths. In place of the vibrant, buoyant, and super-tight instrumentation of 2008’s The Rhumb Line, we get expansive soundscapes, vocal leaps that wax and wane, and beats that are happy to meander to their climax, rather than aggressively rush there. It’s a subtle move in a new, but unarguably recognizable, direction for a band that’s still eager on expanding their sound.
“To me, it just seems like the next step, the next development,” Zeller says of The Orchard. “It’s a lot of stuff we didn’t get to do on The Rhumb Line. We’re still a really young band, and you learn things as you go along, so it’s nice to be able to have been through recording and go back and get to do it again. I’d never really been in a band before [Ra Ra Riot] and had never really spent time in a recording studio, so it was nice to be able to go back and do some things differently—as I’m sure I’ll feel when we do the third album.”
In fact, it deserves to be noted that a number of the changes made for The Orchard occurred behind the scenes. For example, the late-album standout “Do You Remember” started off as a song written for Miles’s side project, Discovery, alongside friend and Vampire Weekend-er Rostam Batmanglij, and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla actually helped mix the majority of the songs on The Orchard.
“The mix can add a lot to the music, which I think he did,” says Zeller. “His eagerness and willingness [to work with us] definitely stemmed out of the relationship we built on that  tour with them. And we obviously really like the work that he’s done.”
Collaborations aside, The Orchard is very much a Ra Ra Riot effort; chock-full of the pop-minded, baroque-leaning, sing-along-ready tunes that made The Rhumb Line such a breakthrough hit, and ambitious enough to indicate a bright future for these New York newcomers.
“I’m really happy with the way everything turned out,” says Zeller. “You can spend years and years tweaking songs and never be done, but you sort of have to step away from it and let it be.”
Ra Ra Riot play SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) this Wednesday, January 19, at 8 p.m. with openers Givers. Call 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.