A level-up record isn’t just a band’s best yet, or even the record where a band finally realizes its promise. It’s a record that taps some previously unrecognized potential, surpassing any reasonable expectations even the musicians might have had for themselves. Producer Chris Walla has had a hand in many such albums over the years: Tegan and Sara’s The Con; Foxing’s Nearer My God; The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife; and, depending on your level of Death Cab fandom, arguably at least two or three with his former group. And now, with Ratboys’ The Window, he’s produced another.
For the first decade of Ratboys’ existence, the intermittently rootsy, perennially likable Chicago group made modest records enjoyed by a rather small audience. By 2020’s Printer’s Devil, they’d expanded from a duo to a quartet and amplified their sound accordingly, downplaying folk and country for ripping alterna-pop in the Superchunk/Breeders tradition, but The Window is their first record to use that fuller sound in the service of a bigger statement. In Walla, they found a producer who flatters their songs with both polish and heft. He brings an unlikely sense of classic-rock grandeur to a band that had always seemed perfectly content playing club shows.
His timing couldn’t be better, because if ever there were an opening for this band, it’s now. Country-leaning indie rock is having a moment, and The Window fortuitously echoes some of the most celebrated albums of the past several years. Between Julia Steiner’s hazy, hopeful voice and the accompanying bouquet of fiddle, “Morning Zoo” could slot right into Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud. There are periodic shades of Big Thief, too—not only in the album’s lispy twang, but in the four musicians’ synchronistic chemistry, especially their almost telepathic vibe on “Black Earth, WI,” a joint-passing, nearly nine-minute guitarists’ showcase.
In its scrambled guitars and somersaulting hooks, the record The Window most closely mirrors is Wednesday’s Rat Saw God, albeit without the abrasive bite. On Wednesday albums, the drugs are harder and so are the life lessons; Karly Hartzman writes from a place of not just emotional drama but often physical peril. The world Steiner paints is safer and less squalid: Instead of rotting houses or torched landmarks, she’s more apt to observe the restorative calm of nature or the brilliance of the northern lights. Yet while Steiner’s songwriting may be sweeter and gentler, it’s no less vivid or lived in, and she never lets you mistake her tenderness for naivety. Her serenity is hard won, and these songs pull back the curtain on all the work she puts into her positive thinking. “I kill my thoughts with a knife/Then blow a kiss to the silence,” she sings. On “No Way,” she throws up a triumphant middle finger to the toxic presences she’s cut out of her life: “There’s no way you’ll control me again,” she boasts.
For all the sunroof-dropping riffs of escapist jams like “Crossed That Line” and “It’s Alive!,” sorrow tugs at the album’s margins. Over the Gin Blossoms-y heartland chime of the title track, Steiner relays her grandfather’s distant final glimpses of her grandmother, who was sequestered in a nursing home due to Covid restrictions. The guitars are purposefully bright, as if to allay the aching sadness of six decades together without a proper goodbye. Steiner’s plainspoken prose never oversells the tragedy, either. With material this touching, there’s no need.
Ratboys have written great tunes before, but they’ve never stacked so many together like this. There’s a confidence to The Window that can border on cockiness. All these sizzling guitars and mammoth, McCartney-esque bridges risk upsetting the fundamental humility that was always so key to the group’s appeal. The Window’s great gambit is to lean into them anyway, and it pays off spectacularly, heightening the thrills without sacrificing the amiability. What a pleasure it is hearing this charming little band show off.
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