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Artist: Ratatat

Album: Ratatat

Label: XL

Review date: Apr. 16, 2004

Power chords and blinding strobes. Pounding beats and scraggly musicians. An incredibly strong daiquiri. These were some of my first impressions of the band-formerly known as Cherry, a.k.a. Ratatat. Made up of the unshaven laptop composer Evan Mast (better known as E*Vax) and the unshaven guitarist Mike Stroud (better known for his work with Chris Carrabba and Ben Kweller), these two unassuming white boys shuffled onto a stage in NYC a few months ago with nothing but a keyboard, guitar, bass, beat tape and tattered jeans. But the sounds they pumped out of the speakers were anything but threadbare.

Recapitulating that rather raucous affair, Ratatat’s self-titled debut is a fun romp into a land where chords always resolve, songs are one part swelling bombast and one part soothing denouement, and synths and reverb rock you like a hammock. Epic sounds achieved with minimal instrumentation is the name of the game for these Brooklyn-based musicians.e

Backed by E*Vax’s crisp, processed drum loops; each of the 11 tracks features a surge of simple melodies which build off each other, climaxing, then sliding into recession like a storm rolling back to sea. Ratatat sometimes switch the order in which these elements are stacked, beginning soft and building, or beginning hard and slowing, or somewhere in between, but the basic structure of “build/resolve” is always followed to the letter. The end result is a sugar-high of electronic keyboard and guitars reaching glam-rock heights and booty shaking lows, all based around very simple, classical ideas of song-structure. The instruments are new, but the methods are old, and the sound is somewhere between insanely conservative and compelling.

If there’s one thing Ratatat can’t be called, it’s deep. With such strong focus on structure and resolution, they present few challenges to the listener, and even fewer ambiguities. Though some of the crescendos and resolutions are quite beautiful, Ratatat can become weightless as easily as they can work you into a frenzy. Like any piece of art that makes the meaning too clear, if one is in the mood for something more nuanced, Ratatat can sound oversweet. Nowhere does distortion take over; nowhere does the structure collapse and reveal unexpected secrets. Ratatat simply delay their sonic apogee over the course of each song, and then release it like candy from a piñata, leaving one’s mouth full of good feelings and one’s stomach a trite queasy.

No track fails the album, and very few overreach its bounds. Every piece stands well on its own, with “Seventeen Years” and “Spanish Armada,” the first and last song respectively, containing the most power. Added to this fairly consistent experience is a nice, quirky theme of hip hop quotables. Though decidedly random, they add a layer of fun to otherwise wordless proceedings.

But the problem with Ratatat’s album is precisely this consistency. The lack of tangents and engaging variations creates an experience that is all bluster with little subtlety to balance it out, leaving the ears bored or over-taxed by the end. Ratatat are amazing at forging addictive singles, but long-players that bear repeated listens are something else.

Like a bright bauble, Ratatat will kick your ass if you’re in the mood to play, and will piss you off if it’s been a rainy, tough day. It would be nice to see Evan Mast and Mike Stroud take this original coupling of sounds and play with the limits some more, but until then, grab a cup a coffee, and try putting Ratatat in your walkman for the morning commute. You might just air-guitar all over the goddamn train.

By Owen Strock

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