Photo: Alexa Viscius / Pitch Perfect PR

Ratboys Continue Refining Their Volatile Guitar-Centric Indie Rock

On the band’s fifth full-length release, Ratboys find themselves settling into extended roles and a diverse sound for their most affective effort yet.

The Window
Topshelf Records
25 August 2023

Chicago’s Ratboys started as an acoustic duo with guitar/vocalist Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan in 2011 when the pair released a batch of scrappy dorm room recordings. The album featured plenty of additional percussion and auxiliary instrument overdubs, but in the following releases–four full-lengths, a handful of EPs, and an imaginative 8-bit reinterpretation–the project evolved into a full band effort. Temporary collaborators lent their input to develop an intriguing take on indie rock that blends elements of country, folk, garage pop, and alternative rock.

Two years ago, Ratboys celebrated their tenth anniversary with Happy Birthday, Ratboy, which revamped early songs into the new format. On their latest release, The Window, Ratboys make those collaborators full-time members, expand their songwriting collaboration, and refine their musically diverse take on guitar-centric indie in the process.

On The Window, Ratboys embrace longtime collaborators Marcus Nuccio (drums) and Sean Neumann (bass) as full-time members who, in turn, make writing democratic. Prior to this, the pair founders had been the project’s sole songwriting team. But here, Nuccio and Neumann helped to write the entire album front to back. Nuccio and Neumann came to support them on two previous albums, including 2020’s Printer’s Devil, which put Ratboys on the map. In addition to the more active roles, the band also worked with producer Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie, Tegan and Sara, Foxing), a first, saying goodbye to their windy city home base to record in Seattle. To those ends, Ratboys maximize their potential, fulfilling a broader vision Steiner and Sagan sought for the project from its nascent beginnings.

The Window opens with “Making Noise For the Ones You Love”, a raucous number with scuzzy guitars, feedback, and pumping drums as Steiner croons, “I get stoned driving home looking out the window,” before leading into its bouncy 1990s rock hook. If there ever was a time to join the resurgence of that era, now’s the time. Plenty of bands have been doing it for the past couple of years (Soccer Mommy, Momma, Horsegirl); however, instead of following in line, Ratboys differentiate themselves by taking a more versatile genre nameplate, one that leans more garage or country, depending on the fuzz-to-twang ratio. This genre fluidity keeps listeners on their toes, not knowing where the band will lead them track to track, lending a subtle unpredictability missing in some acts.

On The Window‘s first single, the standout “Black Earth, WI”, Ratboys demonstrate their musical versatility and pension to experiment. A guitar first plucks with a shimmering delay–it’s twangy and country before the full band rolls in. Halfway through the song, Neumann takes a generous yet tasteful guitar solo that lasts longer than one would expect. His notes seamlessly transition to a talkbox effect (popularized by Alice in Chain‘s “Man in the Box”), whose kazoo-like fuzz layers an infectious communal-type singalong. In its meandering eight minutes, it’s a surprisingly good song named one of the top ten songs of the year so far by various sources.

On the title track, “The Window”, Steiner gives a captivating performance, writing on intimate themes that deal with personal tragedy and the painful loss of a beloved family member. During the COVID lockdowns, Steiner’s grandmother was hospitalized (unrelated to COVID). Family members were restricted from visiting. As her last moments ticked by, her loved ones could only watch through the window as she slipped away. “Sue,” she heard her grandfather beside her say, “you will always be my girl.” Her grandfather said his last words to his wife as if she could hear him. But she couldn’t. Steiner could, however, and she immortalized her grandfather’s words and, in effect, her grandmother by using them for most of the lyrics on “The Window”. As heartbreaking as it is to know that her grandmother couldn’t hear those words of affirmation, Steiner insisted in an interview that the song is out of love and compassion, not sadness.

Between the raw, introspective songwriting and potent firmness of guitar-driven music, The Window is an engaging listen all the way through, top to bottom. Though the shifting between folk strumming, scuzzy garage rock distortion, and country twang may feel like an identity crisis, it has come to be Ratboys’ trademark. The malleable nature that Ratboys conduct themselves with makes them such a spectacle to behold, and for this, they never bore listeners. A throughline in the commotion–Steiner’s pinched and pointed vocals, which sound similar to Big Thief‘s Adrianne Lenker–keeps everything together. Without it, Ratboys would not be able to make a cohesive record. 

On The Window, Ratboys reach their fullest potential, expanding and stretching their collaboration, continuing to explore their multi-faceted musical face. They have produced one of their best and most rewarding efforts thus far, and the catchiness of their songs will make listeners return gleefully if the tracks don’t stick to them during intermission. If this is the quality Ratboys are capable of and can put forth, their next release will be just as exciting to hear. If it’s with the same songwriting approach and performance from the same members, we can expect a similarly excellent record.

RATING 8 / 10