In 1999, before we started getting used to the idea of French-style house leading hipsters in droves onto dancefloors, Ratatat began whetting certain prescient appetites with gossamer dance tracks that sounded as if they had been grounded against gravel. It was that unswerving balance between a majestic tunefulness – theirs in particular articulated by a nous for classical music – and a cutting edginess that made Ratatat something of a precursor to the likes of Digitalism and Justice. Moreover, tracks like “Lex” and “Seventeen Years”, where pearlescent guitar hooks beamed in surprising comfort with Bach-like curlicues showed us that the Brooklyn duo could play Daft Punk at their own game, and then some.
Over a decade and three albums later, Evan Mast and Mike Stroud continue to display an unfailing capacity to innovate within a genre whose expiry date seemed imminent a year ago. Their poker-faced, ironically titled LP4, recorded in rural upstate New York, extends the bounds first disturbed of its foundations by 2008’s LP3. In fact much of what became LP4 was residual material from the LP3 recording sessions. So Mast and Stroud deserve a double pat on the back for creating their best album yet from scraps.
On LP4 the metallic crunch of albums past is macerated by material that sounds like it could have been produced by The Zombies had that band gotten hitched with Brian May sometime between the reigns of Atari and Beverly Hills 90210. (Preposterous, I know.) Stroud’s trademark guitar cries unfold and warp as if in permutations of the notorious guitar lick from said television show’s original theme song, jostling for attention with the duo’s tested baroque influences. Newfound sources of delight also figure here, including about a city block’s worth of sonic flotsam, vocal samples from a Werner Herzog film and snippets of an interview with Linda Manz of Days of Heaven fame that the duo conducted quite by accident.
So LP4 may seem like a glorified mess but it has all the coherence and sensorial vigor of one of those Ed Hardy ink designs: unabashedly gaudy with a hard-assed physique; its Byzantium details revealing a mid-to-late century decadence that may still only appeal to a select audience. Yet, like those designs – dense with colours in various degrees of saturation – it can be beautiful to behold.
From this you can gather that LP4 is decidedly more extroverted and experimental in both style and rhythm than anything dropped before by Ratatat. The way arrangements, at their most complex, break down and recombine only to course through unpredictable channels makes it near prog-like. Accordingly, Mast and Stroud supplemented their bread-and-butter guitars, analog synths and drum machine with a beefy string section and live drumming.
The album begins with a Vangelis-style drone lurching “Billar” into action like a cartoon robot amid something akin to dropped change, guttural gurgles and virtual gunfire. Despite appearances, “Billar” at this point has the disjointed rhythmic drawl of a grimey hip hop instrumental. The track then bottoms out—miraculous in its seamlessness like one’s shifting gaze on a hologram—into a luxurious cinematic episode in which patriarchal strings conspire into a crescendo of marimba-like fireworks before atrophying into the sunset. The quaint, pitch-perfect harmony of this latter half of “Billar” invites visions of some hauntingly beautiful Japanese anime film directed, perhaps, by Hayao Miyazaki.
We then hear a spoken-word passage in German taken from Herzog’s Stroszek that fittingly introduces “Drugs”. Possibly the highlight of an album full of highlights, the track tiptoes into motion with a maudlin swirl of strings and piano chimes. This rose-tinted glass then shatters with the whizzing and crackling of Mast’s analog synths, only to be rejoined later by the woozy brushstrokes of Stroud’s guitar.
It’s not often one gets the pleasure of saying that an act improves on every new album. Though original and brilliantly executed, Ratatat’s classically minded dance rock of albums one and two were, to many critics, all a bit “samey”. To even the less-than-casual listener, yours truly included, it seemed the duo’s earlier material was all Stroud’s guitar virtuosity in counterpoint with Mast’s synth outbursts, and clicking and stuttering electronic beats. Variations in dynamics and tone were there but so subtle as to easily dodge appreciation.
LP4, while not sacrificing the duo’s trusted formula, is quite obviously protean to the hilt, with aural particulars interlocking with unprecedented intricacy. “Neckbrace”, for instance, bleeds variety. It erupts with some rhythmic popping and locking that embraces some odd scummy vocal mumblings like that belonging to some dishevelled comic alien. This then forms a part of a mosaic of guitar yelps, synth swirls, strings smears, and arcade fire. The result is like Disneyland for the ears: resplendent, profligate and irresistible. And as usual, no note, click or clatter is out of place.
Aside from “Billar”, “Drugs” and “Neckbrace”, the album shines where there is interplay between genres within songs. “Bob Gandhi” commences in psych pop garb headlined by a flute, harpsichord and polyrhythmic drumming. The chorus, without warning, then bursts forth in a blitzing of effulgent guitar 90210-style, only to be eclipsed by an extended string-led interlude and more drum patter. The guitar motif then resurfaces as if from behind the string cloud. Some form of that 90210 theme reappears in Party With Children, a jaunty number fleshed out by a nifty baroque filigree on harpsichord set to a bossa nova beat. This track is preceded by “Mandy”, which would qualify as a solid electro-hip hop instrumental until those familiar pompous strings, kaleidoscopic synths and spectral rays of guitar (not necessarily in that order) push the track from ordinary to unusual.
These are but a few examples where non-so-subtle influences and sounds are bound together with ineffable artfulness, so much so that the proverbial whole is greater than sum of its parts.
There are, of course, quieter moments on LP4. “We Can’t Be Stopped” and “Mahalo” are percussion-less and executed mostly with real instruments. Both carry the kind of bittersweet contentment concealing vulnerability that made the slightly brooding Classics such an arresting listen for something that’s fundamentally a dance album. With drowsy licks of the lap steel guitar chiming with weeping spectral guitar, they paint a portrait of island tranquillity marred by a spectre at the horizon.
This whispered balefulness is carried on through to the album’s swan song “Alps”, which harbours the ghost of Pachelbel’s Canon and sets off a mental reel, in this listener at least, of animated furry creatures recovering their place under the sun after a storm has passed—but timidly in case their world hadn’t thoroughly washed itself of that phantom menace. Nothing else does as much to confirm that Ratatat are auteurs of musical fantasies you want to experience over and over.