Ratboys' latest effort, GN, short for goodnight, is not quite the sleepy-time record that its name suggests. Instead, the Chicago-based group's sophomore album is an exercise in intimate storytelling, dabbling in both whimsical and sombre themes.
Centered on the duo of vocalist-guitarist Julia Steiner and multi-instrumentalist Dave Sagan, Ratboys work under the guise of alt-country but bolster their sound using a few different tactics. On GN highlight "Elvis in the Freezer," Steiner laments the death of a cat amidst frothy country guitars with just enough crunch to balance out the slide guitar and wispy horns. "Dangerous Visions" starts off with a plodding verse, but during the chorus, it unexpectedly veers into lawless guitar textures while Steiner elevates her voice to match the intensity for a few brief moments.
Elsewhere, Steiner sighs about loneliness and survival before quietly disappearing towards the end of "Crying About the Planets" when Sagan envelops the harrowing track in a sheath of noisy sandpaper tones. Despite Sagan's unpredictable arrangements, there's a dream-like warmth throughout GN, largely thanks to Steiner's voice; she's delicate and folksy, but her hummable, soothing melodies are also succinct and purifying.
Ratboys maintain the DIY aesthetic heard on their self-released EPs and 2015 debut album, AOID, here. GN isn't a huge step towards indie stardom, but it should get them in the same conversation as like-minded peers like Pinegrove and Big Thief. (Topshelf)