POP MUSIC

Ra Ra Riot had more charm than edge at Black Cat on Sunday.
Ra Ra Riot had more charm than edge at Black Cat on Sunday. (By Doron Gild)
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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ra Ra Riot

Ra Ra Riot is the kind of band you can bring home to meet the parents. And even if those parents think indie rock is music that comes from Indiana, they'd probably still enjoy the Syracuse, N.Y., sextet's songs. They'd probably even cook the band dinner and let them sleep in the basement. The eminently likable budding stars played 50 minutes of sprightly and sincere chamber-pop at a crowded Black Cat on Sunday night, spicing up their already catchy tunes with rolling rhythms and string-section flourishes. The performance may have lacked a certain (or any) edge, but the young band is keenly aware that being pretend punks isn't what's going to make them famous -- it's their songs that twist and turn, but never too much, while finding the right mix of emotional heft and easy charm, that will do it.

Nonthreatening is certainly the name of the game for Ra Ra Riot, all the way down to appearances. Singer Wes Miles looks like he could be the lead on a CW drama (well, maybe if shaved more often), while the other three male band members will hardly have to alter their appearances for their McLovin Halloween costumes. Alexandra Lawn (cello) and Rebecca Zeller (violin) round out the group, and they traded smiles with their band mates as they added the alternately weepy and jaunty string offerings on songs such as "Winter '05" and "Oh, La." The mini-string section helps give Ra Ra Riot its identity without feeling like a novelty and enables it to overcome the limited vocal abilities of Miles, although his gentle cooing is all that's really needed to make the songs work. Plus, his excited vocal tics on the synth-driven "Too Too Too Fast" and his high notes on a set-closing cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love" proved he won't hinder the band on its inevitable rise to prominence.

-- David Malitz

Shudder to Think

Citizens of Washington: Shudder to Think would like to offer you an apology. On Friday night, singer-guitarist Craig Wedren stood center stage at the 9:30 club and asked the audience to forgive him and his band. What for? That wasn't exactly clear. "We need to get clear and clean with D.C. and all the bad, negative, hurtful things we did to people," said Wedren, choosing to leave out the juicier details. "So, D.C., we apologize." Thus the Washington-turned-New York band's first hometown performance in years became a reunion gig as act of contrition.

Having re-formed in August after roughly a decade apart, the quintet performed a set that drew heavily from both its early days on local label Dischord and its major-label debut, "Pony Express Record." Most of those songs have aged gracefully. The darker elements of the band's music that perplexed listeners back in '94 -- odd time signatures, upside-down glam-rock guitar hooks and schizoid, word-salad lyrics -- remain pretty baffling even now. "The case of her bones are softer than loose meat," went the jagged and dissonant chorus of "Gang of $." Yup, still pretty weird. Wedren's acrobatic falsetto -- which frequently extended into astonishing, eunuchs-only territory -- has also held up remarkably well.

So whatever their past misdeeds, Shudder to Think managed to accomplish some penance with haunting and nuanced performances of such songs as "Pebbles" and "Hit Liquor." By the time guitarist Nathan Larson kicked out the opening riff of "X-French Tee Shirt," the deal was sealed. Shudder to Think, you are forgiven.

-- Aaron Leitko

Girl Talk

Musicians who craft their sounds on laptops deal in various styles, but onstage they nearly all share the same posture: hunched over their computers.

That's the position Girl Talk (a.k.a. Gregg Gillis) assumed for most of Friday night at the 9:30 club, but with a crucial difference: He was not alone. As soon as the mash-up master took the stage, it filled with members of the audience, perhaps a hundred strong. These frontline Girl Talk troops pumped their fists for the entire 75-minute set.

Lifting and looping bits of existing songs, Girl Talk works in the copyright-be-damned tradition of Double Dee and Steinski, Negativland and the KLF. The Pittsburgh cutter-up takes techniques and hooks from hip-hop, but his popular appeal probably owes more to his use of large chunks of vintage mainstream hits. On Friday, GT's crunchy bass lines and random squelches buffeted pieces of such tunes as Aerosmith's "Dream On," Blackstreet's "No Diggity" and the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie." The juxtapositions were lively, but not especially witty or revealing. GT's most ironic appropriation was the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," a 1979 hit co-created by Trevor Horn, who later founded Art of Noise, a far more sophisticated venture into sonic collage.

Sophistication is not what GT is peddling. With smoke billowing from the fake bonfire under his mixing table, the laptop popster shimmied and twiddled as the audience was showered with streamers, confetti, beach balls and large, inflated plastic pillows. Finally, he removed most of his clothes and dived for a bit of crowd-surfing. Such antics are why Girl Talk is one of the rare computer-based sound experiments that's more compelling in the flesh than on an MP3.

-- Mark Jenkins


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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