Ah, the onomatopoeia! Is there any more magical type of word in the English language? Or really any languages, for that matter, as onomatopoeic words exist everywhere in the world? Words that sound like what they represent are simply awesome. Do I sound like a nerd? Well, that’s because I am. Need further proof? Then one need look no further than my workplace. One morning I entered the bookstore to see that the new Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game editions were out. The store featured a sign to promote the items saying, “Goblins, Orcs and Kobalds, oh my!” I had two immediate thoughts fly through my brain, one right after the other. I’m talking milliseconds, people. The first was, “Oh, someone misspelled kobolds.” And the immediate second, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I know how to spell kobolds.” You see, it doesn’t matter that I haven’t played D&D in more than twenty years. Nerdiness is inherent. You just can’t shake it. For years, nerds like me have wondered what it’s like to be cool and popular. But, in recent years, nerdiness has made a kind of comeback, usurping the idea of cool and warping it to fit its own devices.
That, my friends, is where the onomatopoeically named band Ratatat comes in. This New York duo has been a favorite of mine since their self-titled debut, which introduced the world to the band’s Main Street Electrical Parade meets Zelda meets arena rock guitar solo electronics. There’s always been something slightly nerdy about these bedroom rockers. Whether it’s the likenesses to the references above or something more subliminal in their guitartronica, it can be sensed, like the nerd sweat that enrages Springfield school bully Francine. Rather than enrage, however, Ratatat’s music tends to instigate parties and good times all around. Ratatat has found the secret of making nerdiness cool and only continue that process with LP3.
Taking a page from the book of Portishead (whose last album was named Third), Ratatat name their third album, simply enough, LP3. Looking up at the title information on this page makes me think of some kind of secret code, but there’s no secret about how great this band is. Opener and lead single, “Shiller,” kicks off the album, sounding like the X-Files theme as if done at some kind of futuristic Ren Faire. In other words, it’s perfect for a LARPer’s mixtape. With this third LP, a few things have changed, but not enough that most would notice. For one, the hip-hop beats have mostly been replaced with live drums, or at least less bass-driven percussion. Secondly, aside from the signature, processed guitars, there’s a heavy keyboard presence. The presence of harpsichord on a number of tracks makes one think that these songs may have been welcome additions to the Marie Antoinette soundtrack.
Like Portishead, this group’s third album is awash in experimental stunners. On LP3, “Mi Viejo” can be counted among those winning tracks with a worldlier feel, as if the boys finally got out of the bedroom and discovered tribal cultures. “Mirando” is what you might expect if Tom Waits fully embraced electronics and ditched the growl for a Casio. “Bird Priest” has somewhat of a Portishead feel to it, making the album share more than just a title similarity, but lacks the eeriness that pervades each and every Portishead track. “Shempi,” a title that sounds like an Icelandic Three Stooges character, brings back the proggy guitars and layers them with keys for what could only be described as the best lost track from the Xanadu score ever. “Dura” is a medieval dance tune that happily traipses around in modern garb, like “We Will Rock You” at a jousting contest, while its follower, “Bruleé,” has something that most of Ratatat’s songs have been missing, a narrative melody akin to a ’70s singer / songwriter pop track. Think “It Never Rains in Southern California” done by robots. “Mumtaz Khan,” which sounds like an enemy of the Thundercats, is a staggering hip-hop track that sometimes hits very close to Eric B. & Rakim’s “Chinese Arithmetic,” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Ratatat have definitely added some new stuff to their playbook, but not so much that you wouldn’t recognize the band on first listen. The duo has expanded their sound to include more of a natural feel, despite the overwhelming presence of electronics. The combination of pianos, harpsichords and live drums with their guitar effects and samples has created a kind of Zen-like balance. Detractors may miss the cold technological aspect to Ratatat, but this new warm version and organic version is no slouch. In other words, LP3 is the next step in the evolution of a band embracing its nerdiness in all its forms, like a robot with artificial intelligence learning how to feel emotions. Yes, Ratatat is Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And remember, folks, guns don’t kill people, magic missiles do.
Phoenix – Alphabetical
Various Artists – Marie Antoinette Soundtrack
ELO – Out of the Blue