For as much of a universal art form as music is, there has to be an admission when some styles are directly tailored to a certain audience. It’s not pandering per se, but rather adopting a sound that is frequently gravitated towards by a certain demographic. That seems to be the case with Chicago band Ratboys, whose notably reserved, quiet blend of indie-rock and alternative country makes a beeline for the stereotypically middle-brow hipster market.
With that in mind, thoughts surrounding their sophomore full-length GN are likely to be wildly different depending on who’s asked, and though it may seem counterintuitive to the overall argument, it’s an album that can be understood and appreciated, but not necessarily liked. That’s the standpoint that seems to be all too common when approaching GN, an album whose insulated, twee songwriting is nowhere near as insufferably emo as it should be, but with a presentation that can’t match up and ends up dragging it down.
It’s worth taking into account the magnitude of such an effect too, given how strong the writing here can be. The numerous vignettes of loss and confusion may not have much in the way of connecting tissue beyond their base theme, but even so, they mostly manage to work in isolation. There’s definitely narrative intrigue in tracks like Crying About The Planets, telling of explorer Douglas Mawson and his fight for survival trekking across the Antarctic, or Peter The Wild Boy, where a feral child in the forests of Germany is discovered and adopted by the King of England, but Ratboys’ most impactful tales come in those a lot closer to home. The narrowly-avoided train accident by vocalist Julia Steiner’s four-year-old brother on Control has a lot of emotional clout in the writing, even with its mostly fantastical imagery, but it’s opener Molly that hits the hardest, the highly insular struggle to show affection where Steiner uses the natural vulnerability in her voice to a great advantage.
It’s just a shame that the instrumentation doesn’t mesh together well enough with the writing to fully do it justice. The main issues are twofold, the first being that this is absolutely nothing to write home about. The slide guitar on Elvis Is In The Freezer and the soft, lush indie-folk of Peter The Wild Boy are pretty enough, but beyond that, there’s little else to really say. Tracks like Westside and GM remain rigidly attached to a standard indie-rock and folk-rock framework with a predictably ragged production job to match, which is at least better than the sleepy buildup that saps Crying About The Planets of its impact as it limps through it six minutes to a crescendo that feels desperately late. But perhaps even more of an issue is how none of this actually fits with what’s being said. For an album about loss, there’s a peculiar lack of elegance to Dave Sagan’s bashed-out guitar lines on Westside and The Record that feels too unhinged to fit the mood. Even in the vocals, Steiner’s vulnerability is often counteracted by a waifish, distanced delivery that doesn’t really work. At least when Sorority Noise tried a similar thing, it was working with one ongoing narrative; the patchwork sequencing of GN gives such a delivery a feeling of ambivalence that makes it difficult to become really invested.
And sure, it’s easy to see that Ratboys are embracing the ethos of early emo in their music without completely adopting it, and that can be respected. But by doing say, GN feels stifled, an album that could’ve afforded to venture a bit deeper but chooses not to. Whether or not that’ll matter to Ratboys’ audience is a different matter entirely, but to a newcomer or onlooker, GN doesn’t offer much beyond an indie-rock that’s serviceable with slight inclines in quality and not a lot else. Still, it’s worth a listen, albeit one that won’t stick in the brain for long.
For fans of: Waxahatchee, Pinegrove, AJJ
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘GN’ by Ratboys is released on 30th June on Topshelf Records.