Ratboys – The Window
Funny how your surroundings can affect the way you receive music. Off the strength of Ratboys’ epic eight and a half-minute “Black Earth, WI,” released back in March, I was anticipating a full album release as much as anything coming out this year. When I got my promotional copy in July, I gave it a listen on a rainy, late-night drive home, and it…just didn’t hit quite right. A few days later, I gave it a second spin on a beautiful, sunny Colorado mountain drive, and I found where this album lives. The Window is, by far, this Chicago band’s biggest-sounding collection to date. Amongst all those gorgeous guitars, though, is some of the best songwriting you’ll hear in 2023.
On previous releases, Ratboys have flirted with twang, but The Window momentarily eschews that with an all-out, guitar-and-drum banger off the top. “Make Noise for the Ones You Love” does just that, an all-brawn stomper – “I turn up/My favorite song” – perfectly balanced by Julia Steiner’s vulnerability – “Wishing I could call you up.” Grief – for a lost partner, for a departed loved one – hits hardest when Steiner drops all pretense of avoidance and stares her loss straight in the face – “I get sad/When I look back/At all the time we thought we had.” Raging guitars aside, it’s that kind of naked sensitivity that hints at the best moments on The Window.
Producer Chris Walla (former songwriter and guitarist in Death Cab for Cutie) encouraged Ratboys to push beyond their guitar-bass-drum foundation, and the first prominent instance of that (and a bit of that twang) is found on “Morning Zoo,” with the addition of Abby Gunderson’s breezy violin line to a deceptively bouncy tune that reminds you just how damn hard it can be to get up some mornings with a checklist of questionable coping mechanisms – “I kill my thoughts with a knife/Then blow a kiss to the silence.” Elsewhere, Ratboys display their cohesiveness as a for-the-first-time, full-on partnership – original members Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan added bassist Sean Neumann and drummer Marcus Nuccio not just in studio and on tour, but also in the collaborative process, best exemplified in “Make Noise…” and in “No Way,” which begins with a “Jane Says”-esque riff (seriously, this whole record is a 90s alt-rock candy store), includes a healthy dose of spite from Steiner’s pen – “I’ll take a penny/For your thoughts/And I’ll throw it straight to hell” – before grinding itself into a heavy guitar-and-organ breakdown, all signs of a band indulging their influences and instincts to maximum effect.
As much as The Window is one of this year’s best albums (and, all told, it really is), its true legacy is in two songs. “Black Earth, WI,” released early this year as a stand-alone track before the album’s announcement, is gorgeous and sprawling, with big, cosmic riffs and a sense of exploration – “I went back to the shore/To follow Her pathway/Forevermore” – that should be part of every road trip until driverless cars phase them, and all of us, out. And the title track, a 90s alt-pop gem that’s ostensibly about the end of a relationship – “I wish you were right next to me/Instead I’m alone” – but was actually written about Steiner’s Grandma’s death as Grandpa, due to 2020’s COVID restrictions, watched and spoke to her from outside through an open window – “I looked in, and I felt you with me…When you waved your hand.” Musically, lyrically, and emotionally, it’s one of the most beautiful things you’ll hear this year. So, listen to The Window for the big, glorious road album that it is. Just be prepared for a few of those rainy, late-night feelings to seep in.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Making Noise for the Ones You Love” – if you don’t start off every show with this buzzsaw, what are you even doing?
The Window was produced and recorded by Chris Walla, mixed by Walla and Mike Vernon Davis and mastered by Heba Kadry. Songs written by Ratboys – Julia Steiner (guitars, vocals), Dave Sagan (guitars, Wurlitzer, Game Boy programming, talkbox, lap steel, backing vocals), Sean Neumann (bass, guitar, bass synth, backing vocals) and Marcus Nuccio (drums, aux percussion, Korg MS-20 synthesizer, piano, field recording, Roland 808 drum machine, Wurlitzer electric piano, Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard, backing vocals). Additional musicians on the album include Walla (piano), Davis (Wurlitzer electric piano, piano) and Abby Gunderson (violin).
Go here to order The Window (out August 25): https://ratboys-merch.limitedrun.com/
Check out tour dates here: https://www.ratboysband.com/tour