Album Review: Ratatat, ‘Magnifique’

RATATAT Magnifique
(XL Recordings – July 17, 2015)
(Rock, Instrumental)
Review by Will Flourance

 

Magnifique lands five years after “Lp4”, a record filled with string sections, talking drums, mellotrons, vintage organs, and beatboxing vocoders. Though originally known for their laptop-rock hooks, they blossomed from this eclectic phase with a chimerical blend of tones and textures, and emerged with their career’s most sophisticated work. Despite using signature guitar effects and a familiar set of organic expressions in nearly every song, their neon-coated floor fillers morphed from party rock to freakishly animated orchestrations. Ratatat became increasingly offbeat and complex during this period, yet fans still returned for their persistent club-thumping bass lines and soaring harmonic riffs.

Constants aside, two aspects inform us on everything new about “Magnifique”. First is the album cover, a silvery gray collage of sketches done by bassist Evan Mast, mostly of fictitious people surrounding the likenesses of Bob Marley and Roy Orbison. This stark lack of color and discernible theme represents an asthetic change that favors a monochrome simplicity instead of Ratatat’s usual color-coded intricacy. Secondly, the record’s progression is interjected by a recurring dial tuning gimmick that skips through snippets of songs left on the cutting room floor. This signals a bountiful creative process behind “Magnifique” while nodding that the record is less of a cohesive sequence, but rather a assemblage of selected individual efforts.

Their lead single “Cream on Chrome” is a strong statement that Ratatat have traded in their pallet of digital atmospherics for raw instrumentation with a razor’s edge. Piercing guitar and synth melodies drive the track with sharp clarity that forgoes overproduction, a reminder Ratatat was ferocious before they had arsenal of unique instruments at their disposal. Certain standouts demonstrate a newfound ear for tinny industrial accents. “Nightclub Amnesia” exemplifies this with its squelching chords and choked riffing overtop of an anvil pounding beat before drifting off into a fidgety, endless key part.

The exuberance of the aforementioned tracks is fleeting, as the nob turns and more sedated pieces take over. Ratatat find themselves carving their initials next to slide guitar legends Santo & Johnny with “Drift” and “Supreme”, a pair of ethereal songs that conjure up rainbow-painted skies above black sand beaches. If not for the hollow tube echoes and the scratchiness of the lap steel sweeps, these pieces could easily carry the listener away from the record’s graphite surface into a Waikiki sunset.

The rhythmic underpinnings of the record add to its metallic finish. The use of unprocessed tambourines, snare drums, and cymbals is new territory for the band. Not only does this shift contribute to the thin mercury sheen of the record, but lends certain songs to a more traditional rock band format. This stylistic diversion is noticeable throughout the record but most notably on “Pricks of Brightness”, a bittersweet power-ballad in the ranks of Mike Stroud’s best melodic work, built up entirely with a live drum backbeat.

The highlights of the record are limited, as the album is weighed down by misfires like the hundrum “Countach”, a track with less promise than the majority of clips peppered between songs. “Primetime” and “Cold Fingers” kick in with high resolution grooves reminiscent of 2006’s “Classics”, but fizzle out after 120 seconds. Ultimately, “Magnifique” is a consciously burnished collection of monoliths cut from different stones and forged in the same furnace. What the record lacks in consistency is counterbalanced by warm-welcomed transcendence of Ratatat’s previous inhibitions. If the magic of Ratatat lies in casting an illusion of reinvention, this record be their most convincing parlour trick.

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