In the winter of 2005 I was a freshman in high school and Ra Ra Riot’s “The Rhumb Line” had not yet come out. That happened in 2008, when I was about to start my senior year. A lot happened in between, but winter stayed the same. It continued to involve sleet, fatigue, early nightfall. It continued to be best expressed by calmly thudding floor tom, Wes Miles’s voice, and the gorgeous interplay between the cello and violin played by Alexandra Lawn and Rebecca Zeller, respectively (and some jingle bells, of course).
Ra Ra Riot always got lumped in with every other goddamn earnest-sounding indie pop band of the ’00s (especially, and oddly, Vampire Weekend. The only real connection I see here is a very clean vocal approach and the Wes Miles/Rostam Batmanglij side project Discovery. Music criticism makes no sense.) But it was these string players that always made them so completely distinct. They make this clear on every track on “The Rhumb Line,” where the cello and violin take melodic precedent over every other instrument, but nowhere is it more obvious than on “Winter ’05” that Lawn and Zeller are RRR – there is no guitar or bass whatsoever on this track, there is nothing at all to indicate that there’s anyone but a chamber trio playing this song, and playing it exquisitely. Lawn and Zeller weave in and out of each other’s lines like snowflakes, at times stately, at times flustered, at times fully at rest.
There is also Wes Miles. Miles’s sweet tenor often belies the actual seriousness of what he’s trying to say – and on a record as preoccupied by death as “The Rhumb Line,” this is a serious handicap. It’s almost hard to take him seriously because his voice is so proper and contained, like a mannered Nativity display. It fits so well with the string-bed on which it lies that you would hardly imagine this song could’ve been made any later than 1960. But it was, and of course it could have been, and lines like “If you were here / Winter wouldn’t pass quite so slow” and “Every morning I wake beside myself” timelessly remain some of the snowiest lyrics I am capable of imagining, whether an anxious high-school freshman, or an anxious high-school senior, or an anxious twenty-something awaiting this year’s first real snowfall in a new city.