"I'VE BEEN RAPPING for about 17 years, okay? I don't write my stuff anymore. I just kick it from my head, you know what I'm saying? I can do that. No disrespect... but that's how I am." These are the first and last words ever spoken on a Ratatat CD, as the intro to the 2004 banger "Seventeen Years." Part instrumental hiphop jump-off, part guitar-hook frenzy, part mid-tempo electronica slide, "Seventeen Years" was one of those songs that made listeners drop whatever they were doing and lament the fact that their whole lives had passed without a song this exuberant and bombastic. The rest of the self-titled CD, though... well, it had its moments here and there, but failed to live up to the promise of its lead single. The Brooklyn duo's new sophomore album, Classics, is far more focused than its predecessor and fairly mesmerizing, beginning to end.
"We were a lot more conscious of trying to make a full record this time and pushing the sound a lot further. We got very detail-oriented on this one," Evan Mast, one half of the band, told me from the road last week. Indeed, Classics is remarkably layered and cohesive, and doesn't wander off track or get repetitive like the previous album.
The opening track, "Montanita," leads off with an accordion before the slide guitars and sleigh bells kick in with all varieties of percussion bouncing back and forth from one speaker to another. "Wildcat," which threatens to steal the whole show, opens with a sneaky little muted guitar riff, a hushed syncopated drumbeat, and an understated synth line before a sample of an attacking ocelot or panther comes ROWRRing off the track. By song's end, so many layers are lapped over one another that it sounds like a tropical homemade orchestra with a cougar on vocals. "Tacobel Canon" is the album's nearest version of a stoner zone-out, with chirping nitrous-oxide UFO noises, a backward-looped bass, and those clean and warm, soaring signature guitar harmonies.
I asked Mast how he describes the band when people first find out that he's a musician. "Oh, it's horrible," he said. "I usually say it's instrumental, it's electronic, hiphop, lots of guitars. But if it was me hearing this description, I would be like, 'Fuck this band. I never want to hear them in my life.'"
After being disappointed by Ratatat's failure to write 10 songs as good as "Seventeen Years," I was pretty sure I wouldn't lose any sleep if I never heard from Ratatat again. They had delivered one amazing song, which is nothing to turn your nose up at. But now with Classics, they've upped the ante, proved their songwriting and staying power. Made themselves hard to walk away from. Plus, they have a cheetah on the microphone. Why would I want to walk away from that?