Although Ra Ra Riot began generating a buzz in New York City at the same time as Vampire Weekend, their ascent from Manhattan's underground to a major label's roster wasn't nearly as quick. Drummer John Pike died in June 2007, putting a temporary halt to Riot's momentum, and the band's long-awaited debut didn't receive the same rush-release treatment awarded to other hipster hitmakers. The Rhumb Line arrives eight months after Vampire Weekend's debut, but the delay actually serves the band well, since it distances them from the hype and resulting backlash that saturated Vampire Weekend's emergence. The bandmates pay homage to Pike in the liner notes (the album is dedicated to the late drummer, who also receives credit for his songwriting and lyric contributions), yet the true tribute rests in Ra Ra Riot's music, which sounds far more polished and focused than 2007's self-titled EP.
Perhaps most noticeable are the performances by cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller, who alternate between short, focused bowstrokes and legato-style lines. Indie rock isn't a typical home for string sections, but Zeller and Lawn integrate themselves well during songs like "Can You Tell" and "Winter '05," two elegant numbers that revolve around the girls' contributions. Frontman Wes Miles sings those songs with sweet vibrato and a hint of an English accent, sounding like the sort of polite rock star you'd like to bring home to Mom, and guitarist Milo Bonacci deserves kudos for playing sparse, tasteful riffs that leave enough empty space for the other bandmates. Whether they're channeling the '80s on "Too Too Too Fast," mixing indie pop with lyrics lifted from an e.e. cummings poem on "Dying Is Fine," or covering Kate Bush's "Suspended in Gaffa," Ra Ra Riot sound elated to have finally arrived at this point: the release of their debut, the payoff after a very tough year, and the proof that they're one of 2008's most promising newcomers.