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Ratboys - "GN" | Album Review

by Tim Crisp (@betteryetpod)

Country music is an art form that’s lived many lives. I remember as a pre-teen sitting in the back of the family station wagon, rolling my eyes while Ryan Adams crooned over the slowed down Faithless Street version of “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight.” My father insisted that one day I’d understand that country music could be cool. Sure, man. But it would be Adams, years later, along with Wilco, Rilo Kiley, and Bright Eyes who brought a new packaging of twang and traditional tones to those of us who didn’t know what was best for us quite yet. These bands served as the gateway to forebearers like Townes, Gram, and Emmylou. To traditional country, cosmic country, alternative country.

“Post-country” has been the label adopted by Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan, the founding and core members of the Chicago-based Ratboys. And it’s a fitting label for a fresh crop of bands like Pinegrove and Shannen Moser, bringing emo and indie influence into the country music form. For Steiner, the term is something she’s still working to define as she told me last August. “I think about the impulse of storytelling, elements of twang, certain major chord progressions that are synonymous with folk and country music.” Ratboys’ 2015 debut LP AOID showed a tremendous aptitude within these descriptors. Bright and brimming with promise. Their newest LP GN feels like a promise fulfilled.

In many ways GN is an AOID 2.0. Pre-release singles “Elvis Is In The Freezer” and “Control” expand upon a formula set down on first album tracks like “Postman’s Song” or “MCMXIV.” Catchy, twangy jams centered around Steiner’s flair for narration. Her stories of personal and family history, traveling songs, and spinnings of mythology focus on the tinier moments with an attention to detail that brings poignancy into the seemingly trivial. She breathes life into the smallest memories and gives glimpses into the tiny moments that have the most lasting effects. Everyone has those small things we remember well but we’re not sure why. Steiner explores these memories in recollections that are rooted, warm, and lively. “I just want to hold my family,” she sings on the album’s opening track “Molly.” “Hold my shelter and lie in the symmetry.”

Sagan for his part, shines through as a masterful accompanist, equally adept at providing subtle accents to quiet moments or just letting loose with a ripping guitar solo when given the green light. Mostly pocketed and contained on AOID, Sagan’s guitar playing bursts through on GN and explores territories previously uncharted by Ratboys. “Crying About The Planets” comes in with a prodding understated guitar on top of a steady, deliberate backbeat from drummer Danny Lyons. It’s a slowcore vibe similar to Bedhead or early Red House Painters featuring a whispery Steiner cryptically relaying the story of English explorers lost trekking the Antarctic as the band slowly builds to the inevitable explosion: a glorious two minutes of cacophonous roar, densely layered and wonderfully cathartic. “Planets” is followed by the krautrock by way of A Ghost Is Born “Dangerous Visions.” Arpeggiated guitars sit on top of a locked-in groove while Sagan goes to town with spastic bursts of controlled mess for a full minute and forty seconds before Steiner says a word. It’s a bold statement of confidence from a band that, no matter the avenue, is firmly in control.

GN closes with “Peter The Wild Boy,” Steiner’s telling of the story of a feral child discovered by King George I. The passing down of folklore in song is in the bones of the country music tradition though it seemed to fall out of fashion somewhere between Uncle Tupelo and the Old 97’s. “Peter The Wild Boy” feels like a reclamation. A story that needs to be shared and for Steiner, a story that seeps into her understanding of the modern world. It’s easy to mythologize the oldest stories, to forget that these were once people, walking this same planet. Steiner treats Peter as family, internalizing him as a piece of herself to share with the world. It comes out sounding familiar, and somehow brand new.