Even nerds can be rock stars, as Ra Ra Riot ably proves with lyrics about cybernetic hearts and killing dragons with swords. And oh yeah, the fact that they throw cheesy toy store synth lines and lush, orchestral strings into a blender for one of the most compelling aural brainteasers around.
The Syracuse, New York, indie pop band delivered clean, shiny shoulder-shakers Sunday at Austin City Limits Music Festival’s second weekend, with vocalist Wes Miles making me wistful about unidentifiable things thanks to a flexible robo-warble. Songs like early set hit “Binary Mind” channeled the undead spirit of Devo with some MIDI synths standing in for a Ouija board. Yet Rebecca Zeller’s bedazzled violin — BEDAZZLED VIOLIN — was never far behind to add heart-rending texture for songs like the insistently joyful “Absolutely” or the set-invigorating “Boy,” along with particularly rich cello accompaniment.
Special shout-outs are deserved for Miles, who not only sounded record-perfect but found a way to make cool-guy falsetto work consistently with his overall heartbroken automaton delivery. “Beta Love,” the band’s most on-brand song, benefited from bassist Mathieu Santos’ irrepressible bounce. (Talking about his body, but his bass lines, too, for that matter.)
The set was not without some loose screws, mostly due to a bass-heavy sound mix that dragged down the band’s DNA-coded lightness. Mourn the drums. The component parts of the Ra Ra Riot machine needed a little motor oil at times, specifically on a too-pared-down polka-esque version of “Dance With Me.”
The band finished strong, though, with insta-sway “Water,” a Rostam collaboration, and “I Need Your Light.” That song tied a slick bow on the show, all swelling strings and chipper electric guitar culminating in a picture-perfect “run to the girl” moment. For romance and quirk, Ra Ra Riot couldn’t be beat.