“Ratboys are your new favorite band” screams out the headline on the Chicago-based band’s press kit. Those are bold words in an era full of bands battling to be heard and embraced by old and new generations of music fans. While such a proclamation would be dismissed as just ultra-exuberance, Ratboys back up the statement on their terrific sophomore album, GN.
Witty, whimsical, thoughtful, and always genuine, GN is a dream album for those who love great storytelling. Principal songwriter and frontwoman Julie Steiner skillfully meshes fantasy with reality, offering songs that are akin to the great childhood fairy tales yet full of personal memories. The one song that best encapsulates Ratboys’ beautiful ambition and personality is the album’s penultimate track – the slow-burning alt-country rocker, “The Record.“ As Steiner’s honeyed vocals sing:
This is my message, you heard right
Don’t get it twisted
I got all my secrets laid out on the shelf
And I think it’s about time
That we showed everyone else
Our shiny record, the story that we’ve built.
And this “shiny record” Ratboys have created starts off with the vibrant indie number “Molly”, a tune that hurtles along with some fantastic chord progression by co-founder David Sagan and a gnarly bridge. Steiner’s songwriting takes us for a time inside the imagination of a little girl and then inside her own as she longs to see (or possibly be) “Molly” once again. The twangy anthem “Control” similarly shakes and shimmers. Beneath the catchy melodies, however, lies a story about a close call and how one’s world was almost forever changed. “Dangerous Visions” commences with a gentle groove before building into a gritty wall of reverb guitars and heavy rhythms as Steiner reminds us of the feeling of what it was like to be innocent and free.
“Westside” is one of the rarities on the album – a love song, but an atypical one. “I had never loved another person / Until I found your name on a paper plate in the aeroplane,” sings Steiner with her voice sounding lost and distant, singing about someone she loved from afar. It’s a feeling many of us know all too well.
A trifecta of songs reveals the Ratboys’ creativity and ability to merge fact with fantasy. The brooding rocker “Elvis is in the Freezer” paints a scene of a man (is it Elvis Presley?) on his death bed. His final moments are with a nurse who administers a needle to ease his pain. But is Elvis forever gone or is he being put into a cryogenic state? The languid “Crying About the Planets” tells the story of explorer Douglas Mawson, who along with his companions Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, was mapping Antarctica in 1912 when tragedy struck. Mawson was the sole survivor, and Steiner recalls his experience through his eyes:
Once or twice, I thought I might
Take my life and throw it
Into that great abyss.
But, I must admit I’d be remiss
If I didn’t tell you
That I can’t quit this.
Hell is frozen, and it’s relentless.
Eat my dogs, one by one
And cry about the planets
In this ceaseless stretch of white.
The folk-inspired closer “Peter the Wolf Boy” reflects on the life of a feral child in Germany who was eventually adopted by the King of England. The song, though, is much more than a fictional account of history. It also represents the dreams and wishes we all have, where for a moment we hope to be someone else or somewhere else – or as wild, innocent, and free as Peter.
Leave it to a band like Ratboys to give us not just a song but an entire album that echoes the great fables of the past. Imaginative, pensive, quirky, and real, every minute of GN is like a page-turning book that keeps you awake at night. We just might have a new favorite band. No; we do have a new favorite band.
Ratboys are Julia Steiner (vocals/guitar), David Sagan (guitar), Sean Neumann (bass), Cody Owens (trumpet), and Danny Lyons (drums).
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