Ratboys – The Window

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Ratboys The Window review

“Black Earth, WI” isn’t quite like any other song that Ratboys have released in their decade-plus history. Their longest single track to date by a solid three minutes, the highlight from their fourth album The Window gets to where it’s going in no particular hurry, less than half of its road-trip sprawl of a song composed of vocalist Julia Steiner’s elliptical narrative of Midwestern wanderlust (“Oh I was hypnotized/Caught up in the northern lights“). But most of the eight-and-a-half minutes of “Black Earth” drift by in a kind of loose and exploratory haze, the Chicago quartet flexing their improvisational muscles, guitarist Dave Sagan taking full advantage of the opportunity for improvisation as they cruise toward an unknown destination over the horizon, arriving upon a towering, Beatlesque climax two-thirds of the way there.

Released in March of this year, two years after the band celebrated their 10th anniversary with a lockdown live performance and an album of rerecorded material written during their earliest lo-fi college days, “Black Earth, WI” marked the beginning of a new era of sorts for Ratboys. This version of the band began to congeal with the release of 2020’s Printer’s Devil, which saw the band achieve final form with the full-time addition drummer Marcus Nuccio and bassist Sean Neumann. But The Window feels more than ever like Ratboys are fully exploring their reach as a band, building on an already solid foundation of songwriting with an instrumental chemistry that feels both dynamic and unpredictable.

Recorded with producer Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie, Foxing), The Window mostly builds on what Ratboys already do well: melodic indie jangle on “It’s Alive,” scrappy and folky punk on “Crossed That Line,” alt-country on “Morning Zoo.” But within each of these songs, they allow more space to explore the nuances of how each element plays off one another and how much richer a relatively simple song can become as a result. Opener “Making Noise for the Ones You Love” is a driving, one-chord chug, all tension and stoned, spiritual stillness, but within that basement punk raga are consistent percolations of guitar squeal, feedback and sonic shrapnel—up until it all clicks into place with its glorious bubble-grunge chorus. And within the tuneful playfulness, handclaps and power-pop hooks of “I Want You (Fall 2010)”, they segue seamlessly from a relatively simple strum-along to a mesmerizing array of headphone ear candy.

The simple fact of songs that sound as good as the 11 on The Window do is that they could probably be written about seemingly inconsequential things and still leave an impact, but the feelings that Steiner taps into go far deeper than surface level aesthetics—stunning as they are. The tumble and twang of highlight “Morning Zoo” is a bright and sunny vehicle for examining internal unrest (“How long does it take/To find the peace that I want?“), with a subtle violin providing a coup de grace, while the atmospheric slow burn of “Break” is more cryptic and incomplete in the portrait it depicts, other than that there’s a similar darkness that Steiner keeps at bay (“But when the darkness falls away/There’s nothing there/Not a thing/You’re okay“). No moment is nearly as heartbreaking as the title track, a tender and sincere moment of grieving, written for Steiner’s grandmother, who died during lockdown and to whom she couldn’t say goodbye in person.

Steiner has described these songs as “deceptively simple,” and Ratboys only occasionally veer from the basic framework of a pop song with a couple of verses, a couple of choruses, a bridge and a solo. None of which actually provides a roadmap for a journey through any of these songs, simply the infrastructure through which to get there. Along the way they take detours through some of their prettiest songs, some of their most emotionally raw, and some that just kinda kick ass. As the road unfolds before them, Ratboys find endless possibilities. Rat Amazon

Label: Topshelf

Year: 2023

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