Ra Ra Riot, Caveman

After being a band for a decade, it’s easy to get disillusioned with the tedium of adulthood, but Need Your Light, the fourth full-length from RaRa Riot, is the sound of a band being reinvigorated by their own existence. Correspondingly, the album sees the group—which originated in Syracuse but has now dispersed all over the country—getting back to their house party roots without abandoning the more heady soundscapes they explored with 2013’s Beta Love. The result is an album that’s celebratory without being saccharine, and that sees the group collectively mining their prior experiences to craft something that looks toward the future with an optimistic gaze.

The original plan was for the band—which features vocalist Wes Miles, bassist Mathieu Santos, guitarist Milo Bonacci, violinist Rebecca Zeller and drummer Kenny Bernard—to take the first extended break of their career after the year and a half they spent on the road supporting Beta Love. After a few months, however, they couldn’t help themselves from working on new music. “The inspiration came very quickly,” Miles says, explaining that he decided to fly out to Los Angeles to start fleshing out ideas with previous producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello). Shortly afterward, the group went on a writing trip to Milwaukee and began the process of creating what would eventually become Need Your Light. To fully realize their vision, RaRaRiot ended up working with a host of previous collaborators, including Ryan Hadlock (who produced 2008’s debut The Rhumb Line); longtime friend and sound engineer Andrew Maury (who co-produced 2010’s The Orchard); and Vampire Weekend producer Rostam (who is also half of the avant garde R&B duo Discovery alongside Miles).

In fact, Rostam and Miles’ approach to that liberating project—which released its debut LPin 2009—helped influence the end result ofNeed Your Light as well. “In January of this year, Wes came to stay with me on the West Coast for five days, and we set out to write songs not knowing where it would take us,” Rostam explains. “There was something I’d heard in Wes’ singing in the earliest days ofRaRa Riot that I felt had never been captured on record.” Influenced by their shared love of U2’s Achtung Baby, the pair spent five days writing the songs “Water” and “I Need Your Light”. “The attitude of these two songs was only able to come because of over ten years of collaboration,” Miles adds. “These two songs were written with no expectations, and wequickly realized that we wanted them to be played live.” So the duo took another week to record bass, drums, guitar and violin in Los Angeles with the full band.

“Working with people we had a history with was comfortable in the sense that it enabled us to continue growing and focus more on the music than relationships,” Santos adds. “ We already trusted everyone.” Additionally, the group collaborated with previous drummer Gabriel Duquette on the track “Bouncy Castle,” and with longtime friend Maury on“ Absolutely,” “ Call Me Out,” and “ Bad Times,”— further expanding the reoccurring theme onNeed Your Light of a band incorporating their past into the future.

Listening to Need Your Light, it’s quickly apparent that the heightened level of experimentation and expansive soundscapes wouldn’t have been possible without the band’s synth-heavy approach to 2013’s Beta Love. This is clearly evident in the opening track “Water,” which starts off with a syncopated groove and minimalist instrumentation before gradually building into a triumphant, 90’s soul call to arms. Alternately, “Bouncy Castle” resides on the opposite side of the sonic-spectrum with its carefree neo-soul refrain. Yet both of the songs were created with the group’s incendiary live performances in mind. “We wanted to make sure all of the songs on this album could be reproduced live because performing has always been our greatest strength and something we felt we got away from with our last record,” Miles says. “A lot of these songs incorporate the same instrumentation we’ve used in the past, but the vibe is somewhere we haven’t gone before, which is exciting.”

Lyrically, Need Your Light parallels the transitional nature of the members’ lives as they enter their thirties and begin leaving Brooklyn to start families without abandoning the band that they’ve spent their lives cultivating. “It’s more of a grown-up record, but with our still invariably raucous attitude,” Miles explains, adding that this evolution was entirely organic. In other words, the aforementioned “ Bouncy Castle” may revolve around an adolescent’s first erection, but it’s not merely an attempt at humor. “On this album we talk about serious things in kind of a funny context, but it’s presented very earnestly,” Santos says. “We really tried to have that type of balance and dichotomy on all of these songs.”

From the carefree, orchestrally tinged vibe of “Absolutely” to the shimmering falsetto pop of “Instant Breakup,” Need Your Light sees the band mining their career to come up with songs that transcend categorization. This ability to get back in touch with their roots was only encouraged by their decision todo a short tour of warehouses and basements late last year before they reentered the studio. The experience reminded them of why they began RaRa Riot in the first place. “Because we started as a house party band, we never wanted to lose sight of having fun and engaging with the audience through visceral live shows,” Santos says.

n the past RaRa Riot have latched onto cerebral concepts like the Singularity or futurism, but with this album they cast a wider net, focusing on everything from sexual relationships to the Challenger explosion. “ It was fun to write songs about Internet affairs and retain a kind of tech-aspect, but it’s much more understated,” Miles explains. The stories are conveyed in such a way that it leaves the listener the chance to attach a more personal meaning to each of the 10 tracks. Whether Miles is singing about something fantastic or mundane, there’s an enduring energy to the songs onNeed Your Light, which illustrates that in many ways, RaRa Riot are still only getting started.

You can only go so far on cool points alone. Since Caveman first formed in 2010 they’ve claimed a spot for themselves at the center of the New York music scene, become in-demand DJs, toured the world (sharing stages with The War on Drugs Jeff Tweedy, and Weezer), and gotten love from everyone from Pitchfork to the New York Times. Now the band–Matthew Iwanusa, lead guitarist James Carbonetti, bassist Jeff Berrall, keyboardist Sam Hopkins and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Prescott Clark–is aiming higher.
Caveman is done being an indie rock band playing for indie rock fans alone. They have their sights set on bigger goals, so on their third time around they made their biggest-sounding album yet.
Otero War was created over the course of three years, completely inverting the ramshackle methods used to make 2011’s CoCo Beware and their 2013 self-titled LP. This time frontman Matthew Iwanusa has taken the wheel of the creative process, bringing to it a level of patience, precision, and quality that exceeds anything he’s ever done before. Iwanusa wrote most of these songs in the back of tour vans with a laptop and a portable keyboard, then spent years rewriting, examining every part to make sure it was exactly right, and eventually abandoning an album’s worth of insufficiently killer songs before hitting the studio with the band. There the group refined the songs even further, filling them out with arrangements that bring together their distinctive musical personalities into one united whole, showing off the seemingly effortless collaborative energy that only comes with years of hard work.
It was more work, but worth it. The result is a whole new Caveman: The songs are stronger and more spacious, with carefully constructed melodies and a more judicious use of folksy four-part harmonies and washes of synthesizer pads, leaving more room for Iwanusa’s instantly memorable vocal parts. Iwanusa’s lyrics have also evolved from vaguely sketching a typical twenty-something’s romantic frustrations to examining larger, more broadly existential matters, like figuring out your place in the world.
While Iwanusa’s stepped further out front as a songwriter, arranger, and singer, Otero War is still a group effort made with contributions from the band’s entire unofficial extended family. Albert Di Fiore, who engineered their last album, returns with an expanded role to produce. Iwanusa’s father contributes string arrangements. Longtime friend and New York punk-scene legend Johnny T, who over the years has employed members as bartenders and DJ’s at his bars, helped the band get signed as the first rock act on Cinematic Music Group, home to rappers Joey Bada$$, G Herbo and Cam’ron.
Otero War is clearly the most mature album the band has created, but that doesn’t mean it’s a drag–in fact it could be the most fun music they’ve made so far. Iwanusa’s singular vision of blending Springsteen and Wilco’s polished roots rock with the soaring emotional drama of Tears for Fears and the Human League has never seemed clearer, or stronger. From the buoyant vocal melodies that make the opening track “Never Going Back” take flight, to the hip-shaking rhythms that hold up “Life Or Just Living” (which Matt calls his best song yet), to the contagious, triumphant mood on standout cut “Lean On You,” the album overflows with the joyous energy of a songwriter and a band finding their stride and flexing their newfound power for the first time. You can hear them enjoying the freedom from the confines of the expectations that have surrounded them until now, and looking out at a much bigger world to conquer.

No one knows summer like Santa Monica’s Zach Yudin, a man of leisure who recognizes “the epic” in something as simple as a twilight bicycle ride or a short drive up the coast. As Cayucas, Yudin has set about creating an impressionistic portrait of summer’s long, bittersweet dazzle.

An avid bird-watcher, Yudin majored in both Music Theory/Production and Japanese. He spent a post-grad year living and teaching in Tokyo, then taking the past couple of years to hone the sound of Cayucas. He posted a couple of songs online, picking up a lot of love and attention, but it was only when he entered the studio with producer/multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift last year that Cayucas was truly defined — sun-inspired jams that touch upon The Animals, Harry Belafonte and the surfer-folk mysticism of the Northwest.

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