n paper, Ratatat is a terrible idea. The concept of putting harmonized, neo-Baroque guitar leads at the forefront of an instrumental band is generally shunned these days except in campy tribute, and Ratatat does it on almost every track. There’s also a lot of tinkling around on cheap-sounding keyboards, which is fine except when you consider that Yngwie J. Malmsteen is, in theory, wailing away over it the entire time. But then they set it all over hip-hop beats, evoking nightmarish rap/rock crossovers from Run-DMC/Aerosmith to Bon Jovi/50 Cent mash-ups spun by apologist DJ’s on 80’s night. But guitarist Mike Stroud and multi-instrumentalist Evan Mast managed a win on their debut album Ratatat largely by writing songs specifically tailored around these elements, massaging the axe and synths and beats into understated vignettes rather than isolating the elements as novelty. Hell, even the hair-metal and hip-hop guys often can’t manage that.
The group’s newest album, Classics, even expands their palette to acknowledge music other than wank-rock. In fact, a number of approaches are taken: from the old metal-meets-hip-hop to Rubber Soul rock to flirtations with more straight-forward indie. The whole things fades in with “Montanita,” which features pedal steel guitars, acoustic strumming, and sleigh-bells—adornments more befitting an old psychedelic nugget or a more conventional post-post-post-punk indie rock outfit. Leadoff single “Wildcat” plays up the novelty in the form of the titular cat’s roar, which punctuates the chugging, palm-muted guitar rhythms and omnipresent leads. The laugh-factor of the roar quickly subsides, but there’s still a lot of “rock” here to go along with the ever-present “cock-rock.”
It’s an unexpected direction from the group. There’s some classic Ratatat here, on “Lex” and “Loud Pipes” and the timelessly-named “Tacobel Canon,” but each has still been refined with bona-fide studio work. If Ratatat was their bedroom hip-hop album, Classics is their epic rethinking of rock history—a sort of hypothetical “what if Brian May fronted the Beatles?” (or, on the infectious “Gettysburg” and “Kennedy,” “what if the Dan chilled with the Walkmen?”).
Indeed, Classics reflects Ratatat’s dream world where everyone shows a little Stroud and Mast. In this world, the classic songs all have doubled-up guitar and cat roars up front. The hipsters practice their lead chops as much as their synth tinklings, and dance idiotically to anything with a beat. The men get married in leather vests, and “Tacobel Canon” is the piece considered by the bikini-clad brides as an alternative to Wagner—never mind the fact that two wispy indie guys playing metal and hip-hop seems a tacit indictment of the misogyny latent in their inspirations.
This unique worldview places Ratatat somewhere in between Daft Punk and the Fucking Champs. Each choose what seems like a comical musical vehicle, but carry it off with such seriousness and attention to detail that it never (or rarely… ROOOWWWR) seems like a novelty. And while sometimes Classics sees the group straying from their conceptual center, it’s never without Ratatat’s unmistakable identity and indelible gentle humor—traits that might be one and the same.