Ratboys: The Window [Album Review]

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The Window
Topshelf Records [2023]

If you’ve yet to come to the realization that band names don’t always offer a helpful or accurate sense of the artist’s music, Ratboys is a case in point. First of all they have a female singer, and the primary musical motifs on their fourth studio full-length of original material, The Window which leans quite comfortably into jangly mid-American pop/rock, no doubt come by honestly in their early South Bend, IN-roots, prior to moving to Chicago. Originally, a collaboration of singer/songwriter Julie Steiner and guitarist David Sagan, who brought in an array of friends and support players the band leaned toward Americana with the occasional lo-fi distortion, giving them a Breeders’ feel.

In the late 2010’s they landed a full-time rhythm section, Sean Neumann on bass and bgvs, and Marcus Nuccio on drums, marking this as the first of their albums to include full-band collaboration on the songs and arrangements from the start. And in another first, after close a year of rehearsals, the band traveled to Seattle to record for three weeks with former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla. While the music and sound grew increasingly expansive to include additional input, the lyrics here feel more personal to Steiner. For instance, the words for the album’s title track, she reports came from actual conversations in the period before her grandmother’s death when her grandfather had to talk with her through an open window due to COVID restrictions in the home where she was receiving care, sharing their parting words from a forced distance. The song builds into a sturdy piece of jangly, melodic rock, with the promise in the vocal hook that “you will always be my girl.”

Elsewhere, “Morning Zoo” feels like the kind of mid-tempo pop/rock you’d associate with Tom Petty’s more commercial efforts, while the first single, “It’s Alive” is a bit of jangly Americana, with a memorable pop rock chorus and a reliable guitar lead hook. You experience the bigger, edgier band sound on the power pop of “Cross That Line,” with a blistering guitar lead, and “Empty,” which feels melodically close to R.E.M.” “I Am Superman,” and has the dense layers if guitar, that give you the feel of a band having a lot of fun in the studio. And speaking of live in the studio, reportedly the long, country rock jam of “Black Earth, WI”’s full 8 & half minutes of guitar soloing was captured in just two takes. It’s the sound of a mid-American band establishing it’s live player classic rock bona fides, with the melodic bass-like locked in tight with the drums and Sagan playing the lengthy lead part good guitarists long for; it’s a lot of fun.

There’s more of that country rock vibe in “No Way,” there’s a bit more experimenting going on in the album’s suitably named opening track, “Making Noise for the Ones You Love,” while “Break” finds them working out some new modern pop rock sounds. The album closes out with two that feel like they represent more of band’s earlier songwriter leaning vibe. “I Want You (Fall 2010)” even looks back warmly to those college days at Notre Dame when the songwriting duo were just coming together. “Bad Reaction” is an acoustic song pretty much a solo performance by Steiner, with ambient sounds filling out the folk guitar and voice to a degree. Ratboys feels like they are coming into their own sound and feel as a band on this album, and the poppier sounds really connect.

“The Window” / “It’s Alive” / “Morning Zoo”

The New Pornographers / Jenny Lewis / Snail Mail

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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