In the streaming age, the surprise album has become somewhat of a routine. Records are dropped with little fanfare, announced with a simple tweet rather than months of marketing and multiple singles meant to garner attention. In May 2020, Jeff Rosenstock released “No Dream” with no promotional buildup. Childish Gambino and Taylor Swift even got in on the action, delivering new records out of the blue.
Chicago’s Ratboys joined the surprise album fray with the release of “Happy Birthday, Ratboy” on April 1. The record is a hodgepodge featuring brand new recordings of the band’s earliest material and a newly written bonus track.
The first five tracks are re-recordings of the band’s first EP, “Ratboy” which released April 1, 2011. The next five tracks are rare cuts from the band’s days in college.
Finally, the record ends with the beautiful, new track “Go Outside.”
The record is an exercise in evolution, revolving through distorted pits of post-rock noise, quickly segueing into twangy folk rock and swirling classic-rock influenced breakdowns.
At certain points, the record is a reminder that the college experience hasn’t changed much in a decade.
“I sit on my computer for something to occupy my time,” Julia Steiner sings on the opening track “The Stanza.” “But I wonder why and where we have to go.”
It’s incredible that a majority of these songs were written when Steiner was in college. It’s awe-inspiring to know that someone had such a prodigious mastery of music and language when they were my age.
“Every day I dream of 58 and how it’ll be so nice to finally have some answers,” Steiner sings on rocking standout “Collected.”
Musically, these songs are wonderful, lush. Adorned with new sonic threads, they’re able to be much more affecting, elevating the lyrics in ways the original recordings couldn’t.
The divide between the aged, do-it-yourself recordings and the glistening, sleek new tracks can be seen the most on the track “Down the River.”
The original recording from 2011 can be found on Youtube. It’s still an amazing song, but the new version feels so much more alive. The melody is stronger. The added synths add a buoyancy that carries the song into the bright blue skies.
With re-recordings, there’s always a battle between two different camps. There are those that love the new versions, ecstatic that they can hear their favorite songs with a fresh coat of paint. Then there are those that believe that re-recordings diminish the artistic integrity of the initial work. I can understand both sides, but I think updating earlier tracks is a reward for the loyal fans while also making the original music more accessible and easier to share.
“Happy Birthday, Ratboy” is a celebration. With every listen it feels more electric, more vital. It’s a gift to be able to listen to these songs alongside their original versions and marvel at how far the band has come since its inception.