Ratboys Have Never Been Better on 'The Window'

BY Adam FeibelPublished Aug 25, 2023

It took a while for Ratboys to find stability. For almost a decade, the Chicago indie rockers were essentially a duo with a revolving door of supporting members dropping in to fill the gaps. With their third album Printer's Devil, the core pair of singer-songwriter Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan finally landed on a firmly rooted foursome with bassist Sean Neumann and drummer Marcus Nuccio. That made a difference then, and it shows itself even more today. Ratboys' latest effort The Window is easily their best work, catching them at a point where their lofty artistic ambitions have converged with the creative fortitude to bring them to life.

It would seem that with their 2021 release Happy Birthday, Ratboy — a re-recording of their early material in celebration of their 10th anniversary — the band was taking one last look in the rear-view mirror before setting their sights firmly on the horizon. Granted, The Window isn't anything like a radical departure, as they're still very much sticking to their style of Midwestern indie rock that mixes in folksy Americana and catchy power-pop in roughly equal measure. But it's the intent with which this music was made that's so noticeable. The songwriting is tight and complete yet seemingly effortless, and each song offers something different and worthwhile.

"Making Noise for the Ones You Love" opens things with a level of energy and intensity that Ratboys haven't quite shown before. They tap into that again on the garage-punk bop "Crossed that Line" and the sunny, shimmering melodies of songs like "It's Alive!" and "Empty," which break away from simple indie rock and power-pop categorizations to land somewhere between Big Star and Sheryl Crow, or, say, Sloan and Big Thief. We'll call it the Ratboys zone.

Even when they're cranking up the volume, Steiner's presence is enough to ensure the songs are warm and good-natured. In music, we tend to associate "intimacy" with quietness, but Ratboys' music is intimate even when it's loud. Of course, they can do tender songs beautifully. The title track tells a heartbreaking story of Steiner's grandfather who, unable to visit her grandmother on her deathbed, had to say goodbye through the window of the nursing home. Starting out gently and gaining speed and intensity as it goes along, the song perfectly captures a kaleidoscope of human emotion — grieving over loss, grateful for love, frustration over survivor's guilt, anger over the cruelty of circumstance. It's an arresting moment on The Window and it ought to go down as a highlight of this year in music.

In between the quiet moments and the loud ones, we find Ratboys in their element. The Americana shuffle of "Morning Zoo" is irresistibly sweet, as Steiner searches for an ever-elusive sense of contentment: "How long does it take to find the peace that I want?" With a charming country twang, "No Way" is soft yet tenacious: "I'll take a penny for your thoughts / And I'll throw it straight to hell / There's no way you'll control me," Steiner sings. On the nearly nine-minute "Black Earth, WI," they even try out something from the psychedelic depths of the heartland, offering a song that can be enjoyed by yacht rockers, jam banders and Deadheads alike.

These songs sound classic yet of their time. They feel healthy and whole. Working with producer Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie and finding their stride as a fully formed band with a few years' worth of growth and camaraderie, their music has flourished — like a garden that just needed some water. The Window finds Ratboys deservedly taking a confident step into a space they carved out for themselves. 
(Topshelf Records)

Tour Dates

Latest Coverage