Keeping an instrumental rock group interesting is difficult. One of the rules seems to be finding a specific niche to entertain – dance, electronica, or hip-hop fans might follow an instrumental group initially, but what happens after the first few albums?
Ratatat, the Brooklyn pet project of guitarist Mike Stroud and programmer Evan Mast, are trying hard to diversify. After a rousing album of dance-rock anthems on 2006’s Classics, the duo have set out to keep things dynamic with more of an emphasis on unique sounds and textures on their newest release, LP3. The rather generic album name highlights a key aspect of this release – Ratatat are loosing steam.
LP3 plays as a collection of aural experiments that are designed to test all the features of the group’s new set of sound toys. The album features numerous guitar effects and synthesized sounds that imitate flutes, clavichords, and various percussion instruments. It’s like an indie-music radio set to demo mode in a department store.
Opener Shiller attempts a spooky ambiance with a series of synthesizers, but the song lacks a certain drive that the group seemed to have before. This notable vacuum of energy also weakens Ratatat’s attempt at reggae on Flynn, which sounds exactly like the lounge music you’d hear if you were on the phone waiting to talk to The Specials.
Tabla later feature in the semi-mystical mix of Mi Viejo, yet the interesting percussion sounds play against a rather lacklustre musical arrangement involving reversed sounds and solo guitar lines. Ratatat’s attempts to expand their sound result in good ideas with bad executions.
But the Brooklyn boys still have the capacity to create exciting music, and it’s noticeable when they hit their stride. Shempi and Mumtaz Kahn, for example, both build nicely from beginning to end. The labyrinth of synthesizer lines remains something that Ratatat do well, and when placed against a rollicking dance beat, the music is simply irresistible.
What remains from an equal number of successful and failed experiments is a collection that provides excellent background music. At work or home, in the car, going for a run – the songs blend into your surroundings well. The music enhances your activities, but allows you to be focused on the task athand.
The balancing act that any group has to perform in successive albums remains askew here. In trying to bring outside influences into their specific sound, Ratatat have gained an appreciation for novel sounds, even if they don’t fit in well.
The group’s live sound will likely stay the same – even with the softer numbers, the music will be earth-shatteringly intense. But with some more re-working, Ratatat may just yet master music forms, allowing for a natural evolution to their sound.
For now, leave the duo on the back burner until they can cook up something great.