Ratatat: Electronica Will Never Die

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Ratatat Bowery Ballroom September 5, 2006

A few weeks ago, Matthew Fluxblog had this to say: "Perhaps more so than any top-drawer indie act of the 90s, none is more hopelessly out of sync with the indie music of this decade than Stereolab." If he's talking specifically about indie-rock, Matthew is totally right; virtually every indie band to make noise over the last couple of years takes the raggedy Modest Mouse screech-whine thing as a jumping-off point, which leads to a lot of flanneled-up moaning and not a lot of bloodlessly self-conscious, vaguely Marxist icy-twee bloopy cocktail-Krautrock. But if you expand the scope of the inquiry beyond indie-rock, there's still a pretty huge chunk of Stereolab influence rattling around. Take, for example, Nick Sylvester favorite Matthew Herbert, whose god-awful maximalist pillowy jazz-funk house sounds like someone smashed together all the worst parts of Stereolab and Jamiroquai. Or Jamie Lidell, currently using his cred-building electro-glitch pedigree to make horrendously gloppy retro-soul nonsense and get daps from Beck. Stereolab's halogen-lighting retro-futurism lives on in the margins, but it doesn't get a whole lot closer to actual rock music than the New York duo Ratatat, who dead all the vocals and update Stereolab's retro-futurism from 50s ring-a-ding-ding go-go lamps to more fashionable 80s and 90s nostalgia but who otherwise continue in the sometimes-great Stereolab tradition of shiny, meticulous crackle-pop graphic-design music.

Onstage at the Bowery Ballroom last night, though, the band, aided by a tour-only bass player, came off a bit less pristine than they do on record. They started out on some vaguely Meters stoned-funk shit, only slowly letting all their sharp edges and gliding lines creep in. There's a bit of a triumphant power-metal roar in Mike Stroud's wheedley solos, and he plays it up onstage, striking all kinds of time-tested guitar-hero poses and letting his silhouette stand out against the projection-screen images behind him. Except during those solos, though, pretty much everything sounds completely synthesized: the synths, the bass, the drum-machines, and Stroud's own processed guitar lines. The band occasionally flirts with Daft Punk filter-disco without ever quite giving into it. More often, their stuff sounds weirdly jammy even though it plainly isn't.

Ratatat can be truly pretty, but they aren't really built for a stage. Their music only really makes sense as background thrum; I fell in like with their self-titled debut during the summer of 2004, when I figured out that it was a perfect soundtrack for driving home from Baltimore County swimming holes during humid summer days. (Their new album is just like the last one except more boring.) They're an instrumental band, so they don't have the sort of charisma that only an actual frontman could give them. And so they rely pretty much completely on their projection-screen videos to give their show a visual element. Those videos are totally repetitive but weirdly hypnotic: geometric patters, slow-motion kung-fu film clips, everything looped. It was something, but it wasn't enough to keep me from checking my watch between every song. Someone in the crowd picked a quiet moment and yelled "Everyone dance!," and people cheered, but nobody actually took him up on his suggestion. The guy did a couple of halfassed leg-dips and then went right back to nodding along with the tracks like everyone else. Ratatat's music pretty much only makes sense as passive-contemplation music, and it sounds a whole lot better on my headphones today than it did in the club last night.

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