Ratatat showed some real growth on their first three records. The Brooklyn duo of Mike Stroud and Evan Mast managed to etch out their own place among countless Brooklyn indie acts in the early aughts because of a vibrant, experimental sound that’s very much guitar-powered. Their self-titled 2004 debut had a rawness that was endearing, but with 2006’s Classics and especially 2008’s LP3, their songs became more polished and accessible, which is a feat for instrumental music. But then came 2010’s LP4. The sheen was still there thanks to a high production value, but it suffered by being slightly too experimental. Songs were so overstuffed with ideas that they often felt scatterbrained and unfocused. Gone was the leather-jacket sleekness of their previous efforts.
Up until 2010, Ratatat’s output was fairly consistent with a new record every two years, but they went on an extended break following the LP4’s mostly tepid reception. Now, five years later, the duo have returned with their fifth LP, Magnifique, which is an exercise in getting your groove back.
Everything about Magnifique is tighter and more defined than its predecessor. There’s a clear and coherent structure to the songs that’s immediately noticeable, especially on the LP’s first single, “Cream on Chrome”. Compared to the bloated cuts from LP4, the song feels oddly stripped down. All the classic Ratatat elements are accounted for: quirky-cool guitar, pop radio beats and thumping, psychedelic atmospherics. But the dynamics shape the song and give way to a highly danceable, snake charmer breakdown.
The rest of the album follows suit. “Pricks of Brightness” is practically a modern-era Strokes song missing the Strokes. Its shifts from lo-fi guitar strums to full-on Queen-like virtuoso freak-outs are the perfect lead in to a drum-heavy coda that’s bubbly enough to be from Donkey Kong 64. The duo channel their inner Daft Punk for “Nightclub Amnesia”, which works as the record’s centerpiece. Its guitars are gritty and overexposed to create a beefy but broken tone not too far removed from “Da Funk”.
A few tracks on Magnifique prominently feature the pedal steel guitar, which adds a pleasant western twangy-ness when called upon. “Drift” rides on a pulsating, circus organ and the pedal steel guides its elastic melody. A cover of the 1971 Springwater track, “I Will Return”, closes the album and is also heavy on the pedal steel. While the crystalline production makes it pop, Ratatat’s cover is almost too faithful to the original, which results in a sleepy conclusion.
Ratatat have done a fine job narrowing in on their strengths on Magnifique, and in doing so, have crafted their best record since LP3. Now that they’re rediscovered the magic that made their first few records so compelling, it would be interesting to see the duo detour into experimentation again as long as they don’t overthink it. For now, though, Magnifique is a fresh reminder of what made Ratatat so great in the first place.