Published Feb 26, 2020For the first time in their lives as a band, singer-songwriter Julia Steiner and multi-instrumentalist Dave Sagan have some stability. The duo have spent the last few years working with a revolving door of members joining them on tours alongside PUP, Foxing, Wild Pink and others. Now, they've finally been able to settle on a four-piece version of Ratboys, and that full-time support has opened up the sound of their third album, Printer's Devil, in exciting ways.
Right away, it seems like they're having a lot of fun together. "Alien With a Sleep Mask On" offers a sonic retreat to turn-of-the-millennium teen movies like American Pie and Road Trip — without the raging hormones and male immaturity — with a bouncy bout of power-pop that would make Bowling for Soup and Fountains of Wayne jealous. That electric jolt carries over into the equally boppy "Look To" and "Anj," two deceptively touching songs about growing up and watching your relationships evolve before your eyes. If you came of age in the early 2000s, these songs are likely to prod at a few layers of your deeper nostalgic synapses.
These rambunctious tunes sacrifice only a small amount of the tenderness that made Ratboys' previous effort, GN, as touching and enveloping as it is. On Printer's Devil, the teenage spirit of Wheatus meets the grownup bliss of Big Thief in a lovely springtime mix that blends fuzzy, muddled power-pop with bright, tinselly acoustics.
Songs like "My Hands Grow" and "A Vision" sound like a deep breath of fresh air on an idyllic summer's morning, with lovely arrangements that make great use of space. "Listening" cruises in the Reconstruction Site lane between alt-country and indie rock. "Victorian Slumhouse" is a knotty, groovy little tune, like an overcharged Hop Along. "Printer's Devil" is a nifty bit of layering that keeps filling and emptying the space around its one-bar lo-fi loop, but after several minutes it begs for something else to happen. It's a finale without much of a punch, which, along with the meandering "Clever Hans," keeps this very good album from being decidedly great.
In a way, Printer's Devil feels like the musical equivalent of the childhood friend your mother always loved — sweet, pleasant, polite and, most importantly, puts a smile on your face. It's difficult to elaborate on this analogy any further, but if you want to get a better sense of what Ratboys are all about here, think briefly about whether you and that friend are still in touch.
Printer's Devil revolves around a mantra cribbed from David Byrne and Brian Eno: "I'm lost, but I'm not afraid." If you're away for long enough, things can really change, and you may find you recognize less and less of the place you call home. There's also an innate strangeness involved in growing up, as even people themselves start to take on new shapes and meanings. With their songs, Ratboys document an ongoing search for stability amid a feeling of unstoppable motion and upheaval — whether that means finding a shoulder to lean on, a memory to relive, or a place that really feels like yours. But if being Ratboys is as much fun as "Alien With a Sleep Mask On" sounds, that's some good company to have along for the ride. (Topshelf)