A year and a half after Going Steady, Rah Rah released their second album. I have to admit that on first listen i was disappointed with Breaking Hearts. Of course, i am listening to these records out of context, starting my review of this one with the shouted end of Cuba/Peru literally still ringing in my ears, and this is a very different record.
Going Steady had a certain lo-fi charm to it. That is not to say that it sounded like an early Sebadoh record, i do not mean lo-fi in that sense, i mean in the sense that there was not a lot of production. That record sounded like someone who knew what they were doing micced the band live. When the guitars got loud, the keyboard disappeared in the wash. At times, the voices were a little too out front, but the sheer power of the band shown through.
Breaking Hearts was apparently produced by Kees Dekker, who had success in Canada with a band called Plants and Animals. He has taken Rah Rah and smoothed out the edges. This is a very professionally recorded album, and there is a lot of complexity in the layers of sound that the band has created. It almost sounds like a new wave record, like some lost classic from 1986 or so. I did not get that impression from Going Steady, but i suppose that is a natural comparison given the lineup of the band.
Trying to review this record immediately after reviewing Going Steady took a serious mental re-adjustment. I am harping on this point, because i suspect that most EvilSponge readers will be in the same boat, i.e., listening to these albums free of the temporal context of their release, and the vast difference between them takes some mental adjustment.
But that mental adjustment is totally worth it. If Going Steady was 12 songs, of which half were just lyrically silly, Breaking Hearts is 13 songs, with only one purely silly one, but silly moments strewn about. On the first record, Burns was witty and snarky, while on this new record he is stretching himself as a poet, but not being as goofy. The music here is also a lot more complex. The band is doing more than just making catchy little tunes, they are playing with dynamics and layering, and letting different elements take the lead at different times.
To me, Breaking Hearts sounds like a young band trying to really learn what they are doing, and i find the journey both interesting and rewarding. Let's go over the thirteen songs here.
The record starts off with Arrows and the full band going at it, hammering at drums and guitars and keys, while the female voices "ooh". Marshall Burns joins in, and then the female voices yell in the background. This is poppy and fun, not unlike the music on their first record.
The second tune, Ghosts is a duet between Burns and Erin Passmore, and starts with them singing over a slowly chugging guitar. When the full band kicks in, the keyboards are really nice. This is a good happy tune, and shows Burns and Passmore at their vocal best.
Henry kicks off with a rolling piano riff, and tears along at a fast pace for just over three minutes. It almost reminds me of the general feel of The Betrayal from Going Steady, but it is more frantic. It ends with Rah Rah giving us our first truly goofy moment of the record as the music parts and the whole band yells, "Hey Henry, you better lock that shit down!" Whatever that means...
The next track is an altogether different thing. Beaches starts slowly with a slippery, clattering beat and slow guitar. Burns and Passmore harmonize, mournfully, as the song grows slowly, instruments joining at their own pace, including a nice, slow accordion part. This is a nigh perfect pop song, catchy and lovely at the same time. Wonderful.
But too serious for Rah Rah, who have to get goofy again. The next tune begins with Burns saying "Hello Comrade" before a happy drum riff and a ukulele come in. All of the female voices in the band harmonize on Communist Man, while Burns sings in the background. It is a minute and a half of silliness.
Salty Cites starts with a nice keyboard part, and Passmore takes the lead here, just wailing away as the band plays a catchy melody behind her, all of them harmonizing on the chorus. Nice.
Hurt You Bad starts with chiming guitar and keyboards seemingly from the 1980s (and please note that i doubt any band member was alive during the 1980s), then grows with strings. On the chorus, the whole band swells up, with lots of voices and really pounding on their instruments.
After two keyboard heavy tunes in a row, it is time for the violinist to shine in Joey which, believe it or not, is a ballad about the death of Joey Ramone. At any rate, the violinist does a fine job here.
Some female member of the band other than Passmore takes the lead on What About Love, and she is a little higher pitched and has a less rich, almost reedy, voice. It works for the song though, which has lots of keys moving along at a breakneck staccato pace. This is actually pretty catchy.
Lighting starts with an old-fashioned piano riff, like something played in a central Canadian saloon during the 1800s, then the band kicks in with a deep swell of music, Passmore wordlessly singing over the mess. This song has an expansive, epic feel to it, and Passmore and Burns harmonize well here. Rah Rah keep it old school by doing a waltz next, a waltz they creatively call Waltz. This song could have been done by any number of Atlanta bands, with its slight country feel.
Nearing the end, Rah Rah do something really different for them with the album's title track. Breaking Hearts starts with two female voices, then Burns comes in and takes the lead. The music gets kind of heavy, with some intense distorted riffing and cymbal heavy drumming, Passmore really pounding those cymbals. Oddly, there is a prominent bass riff that drives the song along. This is actually a pretty good tune, but it is like nothing else that Rah Rah have done. Good for them.
And finally we wrap up the second record with Parkade. Passmore sings over a drum machine beat while the guitars noodle away. In a strange way, this really reminds me of Tilly and the Wall. I guess i never realized that Passmore's voice sounds kind of like that of Kianna Alarid from that band. Huh. At the end, the guitar goes all distorted, Burns and the other guitarist channeling their inner Robin Guthrie, which is a great way to end a record.
So you see, this is a very different album than the first one. Going Steady was a bunch of goofy fun songs broken up with occasional moments of sheer beauty. Breaking Hearts finds the band mostly performing very pretty pop songs, with occasional moments of goofy exuberance.
Both have their place, and although at first i was kind of put off by the increased seriousness, i think the band are doing good things. So far i am fascinated by the growth arc of Rah Rah. They released an EP shortly after SxSW this year, so i guess i need to go and track that down. This band continues to impress me.