Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ratatat's "Classics" Set the Stage

One of the best finds of 2010 was the band Ratatat. LP4 ended up being a top ten album, and the only reason that its 2008 predecessor LP3 did not push out MUTEMATH’s debut was because of the “one band/one album” rule (I really have to get all these rules written out - they're more complicated than they seem!). In retrospect, I have several albums from that list that are still sort of “stuck in 2010,” but I still regularly get the craving to get my Ratatat on. Even today, the Little One often has obligatory dance contests to Neckbrace.

By February, I was convinced that Ratatat could do no wrong and I was ready to dip further into their back catalog, so I picked up their 2006 album Classics.  As I stated in my roundups, however, Classics put an odd damper on my fascination with the band. If you are familiar with Ratatat’s distinctive sound, the album clearly exhibits the same kalideoscopic, sliding grooves of its successors. On the surface It seemed that all of the pieces were in place for another Ratatat masterpiece, but no matter how much I listened to Classics, I couldn’t get it to click.

During my year-end review period, I have returned to Classics to see if I could figure out if I was missing out on something.  Going back to it now, it seems to me that an average track on Classics would serve as mere accompaniment on their later work. It’s like a play that has really amazing and elaborate sets, but has actors that stand awkwardly on the stage, smiling and waving ambiguously. There might be value in just admiring the sets, but ultimately, it’s the narrative as presented by the actors that provide the interest for the audience. In comparison, the slick melodic focus on LP4 and LP3 might best be compared to a Cirque del Soleil extravaganza.

In reviewing previous posts, I noticed that I mentioned the “narrative capacities” of music, which is the sort of academic claptrap I initially tried to avoid in this blog. Early on, I promised myself that if I were going to stoop to such lingo, I probably should take the time to clearly define what I mean. I’ve pretty much failed to do this since, oh, March or so. Sorry about that.

A superficial conception of narrative capacity might rest entirely on the story that a song’s lyrics tell. For example, do the lyrics mean only what they say, or do they point out to a broader context? From a perhaps more holistic point of view, narrative capacity can also refer to what the music is trying to say, either directly or by implication, as an entire experience. From this perspective, instrumental music can say something as clearly as music with lyrics, so much so that even the most vague imagery will seem to imply some kind of story or subtext.

Yes, that's the official video.  Say what you will, but don't pretend that, for the briefest of seconds, you didn't wonder what the bird was thinking.

Classics certainly sounds like it says something, but its statement is not nearly as clear as those found on LP3 and LP4. It’s mostly made up of grooves, which speak most clearly when they serve as a framework for melodic expression. Without listening to their first album for perspective, I will venture to guess that that Classics was a necessary step in Ratatat’s development. It’s pretty good, but it doesn’t represent what they would go on to do.

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