Ratatat - Cold Fingers
The genius of Ratatat is all about selling you infectious melodies that you'll carry around for a lifetime without giving you a single lyric. In doing the leg work for this post I was somewhat surprised to learn the names of the songs on this record Magnifique (2015), because I only knew them by the innominate melodies that I've been living with since the day the record came out.
Let's get into Cold Fingers!
Distorted electronic drum loop, simple lightly swung bass riff, band-pass filtered (Fig 1) guitar melody; It's simple and elegant and delivers a sound bite that will score your every movement for the next week every time you're alone, and we're only 10 seconds in!
Enter tambourine, a squealing percussion element I won't even pretend to know the source of, and piano in response to the guitar melody and now you know exactly what Mike Stroud was talking about when he told SPIN:
“We tried really hard to not have any moments on the record where you’re waiting, like, ‘The next part’s cool!'”
You never have to wait for that in a Ratatat track. That's partially because every element in a Ratatat song serves to draw you in, and the other part is that Mike Stroud and Evan Mast know exactly when a song should be over. You're already half way through this one! After the chorus, it goes back to the verse, and then when the chorus rolls around again you get this great organ pad that hums along under the melody.
Enter the C section; a final exclamatory "HELL YEAH!" with a high pass distorted guitar riff over simple electronic drums, tambourine, and bass.
And thats it! song over. That's the genius of Ratatat in a 2-minute nutshell.
-Ratatat (and how Old Soul gave me a peek behind the curtain) -
In my last semester of college I ended up in the right place at the right time to be just a few degrees removed from Ratatat, and that has shaped my perception of every record they have released.
It started when I met Adam Elk; the prolific songwriter behind The Mommyheads, a fellow audio gear nut, and my future employer. Adam connected me with another insanely talented songwriter, Chris Merritt whom he had arranged a recording session for at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, NY. Adam asked if I wanted to come up for the session, which was an obvious yes, and a few weeks later I was riding up to Catskill with Chris, Jake, and Brett who would go on to form the band Cruise Elroy. When we arrived, Elk introduced us to Old Soul owner Kenny Siegal and showed me the control room. "You're good with all this right?" Elk had asked me. It was everything that I had spent 4 years studying and endless nights working on in the college facilities, but I had never been the sole engineer for a session at a studio that wasn't on campus before. I confirmed that I was "good" with it. "Great." Elk responded, "I'll see you next week!"
His response was the last thing I expected, and I panicked a little bit, but I would come to learn that that was how Adam operated. That sort of throw 'em in at the deep end, trial by fire approach proved incredibly effective for us, both in this instance and when we later went on to start Storefront Music.
In a number of interviews Ratatat's Mike Stroud and Evan Mast referred to Old Soul as a recording studio in a haunted house, and I can see why they would say that. As I understand it, Kenny believes he shares the space with ghosts himself, and has even written songs from their perspectives. The studio is in a giant old victorian house in a sleepy town, and everything about it suggests a perfect setting for such. The spirit of that place is something otherworldly though, and when I say that my brief time there shaped the way I perceive the Ratatat albums, it's that spirit that I'm talking about. Owner Kenny Siegal has amassed the most eclectic collection of musical instruments and gear with which to record them. There are organs and keyboards and guitar pedals you've never heard of. There's timpani and vibraphones and marching percussion. You can check out the gear list here if you're curious about the whole setup. But so much of Ratatat's body of work is comprised of sounds that leave you saying "What the fuck was that?!" and when you spend a weekend at Old Soul, it all just makes perfect sense.
So Ratatat's 3rd and 4th records LP3 (2008) and LP4 (2010) were done almost exclusively at Old Soul, and a fair bit of their 5th record, the 2015 release Magnifique, was recorded there as well. The difference between Magnifique (featuring Cold Fingers) and LP3 and LP4, is best summarized in this SPIN article:
They recorded 2008’s LP3 and 2010’s LP4 in the Catskills’ Old Soul Studios, which was also “the first time we had access to a million different instruments,” says Stroud. As might be expected of musicians with a bunch of shiny new toys to play with, those records seethe with grumbling, gurgling synthesizers and vibrate with beat-boxing percussive vocal samples.
“The way we made those songs was kind of throwing everything into a pile and sorting it out later,” adds Mast. “This record’s a little more organized and deliberate, maybe. It’s mostly just guitars and bass and drums.”
Magnifique certainly comes across as the opus of a band who has affirmed who they are and what they do. What Ratatat does, is write the best pop songs you've ever heard without a vocal melody.
- If you dig this tune check out:
Let me preface this section by saying that I have yet to find a band that is actually similar to what Ratatat does as an instrumental pop band. What they accomplish melodically without the aid of vocals, and with production that keeps you enthralled throughout a song, to me, is truly one of a kind. Here is a handful of artists that have some similarities though:
(all links go to youtube videos that stand as the best representation of the artist so you don't have to go hunting for music that doesn't suck)