A (sunny, somewhat) literal review of new Ratboys record, ‘Printer’s Devil’
Mike Donovan | Thursday, March 5, 2020
Futures crash into our presents like overdriven, guitar-based romps: crunchy, percussive, unremitting and, more often than not, as uncanny iterations of, familiar pasts. These past-inflected visions, which conjure the magic and madness of pop music’s most compelling material, inhabit every aspect of Ratboys’ latest full-length, “Printer’s Devil.”
“A Vision” strings together strands of hope and decay, Julia Steiner (’14: singer, songwriter and founder of the Chicago-based outfit) seems to say when she quietly dreams about “a dying blade of grass” before waking “up in an instant to find it had come to pass.” And, against accepted logic, the vision’s multithreaded composition signals unity over separation, comfort over tension.
Perhaps it’s Steiner’s polyphonic and textural chemistry with guitarist Dave Sagan (’15), years in the making (the two began performing together during their freshman year at Notre Dame), underpinning the band’s DIY urgency with an indelible optimism. Or maybe it’s the duo’s newly solidified relationship with bassist Sean Neumann and drummer Marcus Nuccio, the final two pieces of the four-piece puzzle.
More likely though it’s the hardwood sturdiness of Steiner’s songs, the craftsmanship of which pays homage to previous decades’ twee pop wordsmiths (Tiger Trap, Heavenly) and indie rock mood slingers (Yo La Tengo, Dinosaur Jr.), all while refusing to sacrificing an aesthetic of its own.
At times, Steiner’s aesthetic rouses listeners to motion. The barn-obliterating “Look To,” for instance, stirs the muscles with full-throated power chords and a thickened parallel bassline as Steiner’s infectiously agitated drawl embodies the headspace of “a restless little tyke / bombing hills in the summertime.” Thematically, “Look To” depicts the fraught protagonist from the band’s rollicking 2016 single “Not Again” (“Back then my teenage energy / would take a thousand shapes”) in a state of pre-adolescent innocence, but it does so with a tone of sonic maturity, assigning to the track’s straightforward structure an evocative non-linear scope.
Other points on the record — most notably, during the title track — Steiner and company trade stimulation for simulated railways on which to shuttle listeners straight and steady. These lines cut through “a frozen meadow / the dead of night,” synthesized between Neumann-Nuccio’s near robotic groove and Steiner-Sagan’s ephemeral melodic slipstream, sliding the listener into a layer of liminal hypnosis.
The undeniable peaks of the track list, though, rise where the rousing and hypnotic meet: a “Victorian Slumhouse.” Baiting listeners with swiveling hooks signaling Dickensian aspirations, the record’s standout track quickly pulls a switch, dumping hapless head-bobbers “on the corner, by the Tesco parking lot.” “Eyes wide with fascination,” intrigued by their off-camber locale, listeners can’t help but sniff beauty “as the dump trucks unloaded three tubs of mud” before them, ushering in a dimmer, burlier B-side: “Clever Hans” and “Listening’s” subsequent soup.
Following the frenetic fragments of their debut, “AOID,” and the subdued spunkiness of their follow-up, “GN,” Ratboys’ third full-length finds the band fully realized. Sometimes energetic, at other times chill and much of the time both, “Printer’s Devil” more than lives up to its “chillergenic” label (note: Steiner introduced fans to joys of “chilleregenic” on Feb. 28 at the “Printer’s Devil” release show). Listeners would be remised if they didn’t join in on the chillergy, given all these futures crashing into our present moment, making everything go boom.
That said, “Let me thank Ratboys for their music.”
Album: “Printer’s Devil”
Label: Topshelf Records
Favorite tracks: “Look To,” “Victorian Slumhouse,” “A Vision”
If you like: Dinosaur Jr., Heavenly, Yo La Tengo
Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5