Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Ratboys The Window


Ratboys rule. Ever since they got their start in Notre Dame dorm rooms 13 years ago, the now-Chicago-based band’s powers have been steadily growing, their signature strain of indie rock coming more vividly into focus. Whereas some bands arrive fully formed in a burst of inspiration but eventually lose that initial spark, others hone their craft, find their voice, and just keep getting better. In this case, the process was so gradual that they sort of snuck up on me, but here we are: Ratboys have delivered one of the absolute best albums of 2023.

The Window, out this Friday, is the record Ratboys have been building towards their whole career. Julia Steiner’s writing is sharp and empathetic, her singing tender and expressive. Recruited partially due to Steiner’s love of Tegan And Sara’s The Con, producer Chris Walla brings dynamic performances out of the band — founding duo Steiner and Dave Sagan plus bassist Sean Neumann and drummer Marcus Nuccio — applying just enough studio trickery to add an artful sheen atop the group’s straightforward approach. Like their country-tinged Chicago alt-rock forebears Wilco, Ratboys now have impressive range within their unmistakable sonic language; they can just as easily crank up the intensity on a tight, methodical, emotionally ravaging anthem like “The Window” or let it ride on a shaggy, nine-minute classic-rock vibe-out like “Black Earth, WI.”

Ratboys are a band built for the long haul, but The Window is one of those albums that feels emblematic of its moment. There’s certainly the “post-country” of it all: Though formed years before Wednesday, the group now feels like a clean-cut Midwestern complement to Karly Hartzman’s sludgy tales of Southern decay. (Cue up your Ratboys 🤝 Rat Saw God memes.) Or maybe they’re a more down-to-earth answer to fellow Americana explorers Big Thief, whose Adrianne Lenker sings with a sweet tunefulness similar to Steiner’s. Yet despite the twangy guitar leads that grace “It’s Alive!” or the fiddle that lends a yearning quality to the rollicking “Morning Zoo,” there are other recent touchpoints in the mix beyond indie’s artful roots-rock movement: the sugar-rush pop-rock of Charly Bliss, the depressive VH1 reclamations of Soccer Mommy, the legion of artists on Bandcamp playing scrappy power-pop, the widescreen emo catharsis of Great Grandpa. (Ratboys were excited to record at Seattle’s Hall Of Justice in part because Great Grandpa tracked Four Of Arrows there.)

It all adds up to an immensely approachable strain of rock music, poppy but with enough edge to unleash a Pixies-esque livewire guitar solo on the new-wavey rocker “Crossed That Line” or let peels of feedback drone through the airspace of “It’s Alive.” They pour on the power chords like the Breeders on the piano-pounding “Empty” and channel the spirit of Yo La Tengo on “Break,” harmonizing over a percolating pulse and then turning the guitars loose. “Black Earth, WI” goes even farther back into rock history, matching a groove that reminds me of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” with a maximalist climax worthy of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” As with any of those artists, the six-string heroics always accent brilliant songwriting rather than serving as a vehicle for pure wankery. You might not even notice how many sick riffs are hiding in plain sight because the songs so effectively center Steiner’s relatable narration.

If the music on The Window brims with the joy of creation, the lyrics are consistently heavy. Steiner seems haunted by grief, loneliness, and longing, which makes sense: These songs were mostly written in 2020 and 2021 at the height of the pandemic. She sings repeatedly about staring through panes of glass — beholding nature while shut inside her home on “It’s Alive!” or watching the world speed by while racking up highway miles on the hard-charging opener “Making Noise For The Ones You Love.” “I turn up my favorite song/ Wishing I could call you up,” she wails on that one. “But I’m not gonna think about that now.” Such internal conflict fuels some of the record”s best lines, be it Steiner revealing her daily repression routine (“I kill my thoughts with a knife/ Then blow a kiss to the silence”) or lamenting, “I have so many bad influences I don’t wanna shed/ The most automatic lies/ Weigh me down sometimes.”

There are exceptions to the turmoil, most obviously “I Want You (Fall 2010),” which seems to be an origin story for the band. Steiner’s lyrics are full of warmly nostalgic flashbacks to geeking out over music with someone new and exciting, like a road trip through Michigan blasting Maps And Atlases. “I love this feeling,” she sings amidst handclaps and a walking bassline. “‘Burning all my blank CDs never meant so much to me.” It’s a touching song made all the better by the knowledge that all these years later, that bond has blossomed into a band capable of incredible achievements like the new album’s title track and centerpiece.

On “The Window,” Steiner sings from the perspective of her grandfather, who had to say goodbye to her dying grandmother through a hospital window in 2020 due to COVID restrictions. It’s a heartbreaking story, told largely in direct quotes from that moment. “Sue, you’ll always be my girl,” Steiner sings. “I need to tell you everything/ Before it’s too late/ That I don’t regret a single day/ And you’re so beautiful.” I’m practically crying just typing it out. Along the way, her bandmates keep slowly ratcheting up the tension. The drums start pounding hard. A jangly, Byrds-y 12-string guitar riff punctuates every measure. Ratboys finally achieve escape velocity as Steiner cries out, “I feel you with me! I feel you with me! When I close my eyes, I feel you with me!” It’s the devastating, triumphant peak of an album that solidifies this band’s place among the greats.

The Window is out 8/25 on Topshelf.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The Armed’s Perfect Saviors
• Zach Bryan’s Zach Bryan
• Open Mike Eagle’s Another Triumph Of Ghetto Engineering
• jaimie branch’s posthumous Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((world war))
• SPELLLING’s SPELLLING And The Mystery School
• Buck Meek’s Haunted Mountain
• Burna Boy’s I Told Them…
• Be Your Own Pet’s comeback album Mommy
• Mary Jane Dunphe’s Stage Of Love
• Danger Mouse & Jemini’s lost album Born Again
• Hiss Golden Messenger’s Jump For Joy
• Morgan Wade’s Psychopath
• Victoria Monét’s Jaguar II
• Prewn’s Through The Window
• Ruth Garbus’ Alive People
• Alice Cooper’s Road
• Fat Tony & Taydex’s I Will Make A Baby In This Damn Economy
• Who Is She?’s Goddess Energy
• Strawberry Runners’ Strawberry Runners
• Spanish Love Songs’ No Joy
• Becca Mancari’s Left Hand
• Islands’ And That’s Why Dolphins Lost Their Legs
• Terrace Martin & James Fauntleroy’s NOVA
• A Giant Dog’s Bite
• Sonny & The Sunsets’ Self Awareness Through Macrame
• Candlebox’s farewell album The Long Goodbye
• The Lilac Time’s Dance Till All The Stars Come Down
• Cindy Wilson’s Realms
• Charlotte Cardin’s 99 Nights
• Wreckless Eric’s Leisureland
• Filter’s The Algorithm
• Maluma’s Don Juan
• Bebel Gilberto’s João
• Our Broken Garden’s Blind
• Film School’s Field
• Prison’s Upstate
• Nellie McKay’s Hey Guys, Watch This
• MxPx’s Find A Way Home
• Claire Richards’ Euphoria
• Incantation’s Unholy Deification
• Helicopter Leaves’ Get Stuck
• Sid Sriram’s Sidharth
• Yeek’s Future Reference
• jaboukie’s All who can’t hear must feel
• The compilation My Words Are Music: A Celebration Of Sun Ra’s Poetry
• Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On (50th Anniversary Deluxe Reissue)
• A series of Betty Davis 50th anniversary reissues
• Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ Australian Carnage – Live at the Sydney Opera House
• Bleachers’ Live At Radio City Music Hall
• Former Girlpool member Harmony Tividad’s Dystopia Girl EP
• Drab Majesty’s An Object In Motion EP
• Water From Your Eyes member Nate Amos’ new This Is Lorelei release EP #33
• Lutalo’s Again EP
• flypaper’s big nada EP
• Joliette’s Luz de Bengala EP

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