Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Ratrod Cats rattle their snake

The Ratrod Cats are a refreshingly retro rockabilly trio from Cape Town who definitely do not worship at the psychobilly altar. Their debut album, Come On Snake, Let’s Rattle (2013) is a showcase for an apparent love and respect for a genre that is one of the most enduring rock and roll offshoots from the Fifties, probably the  most exciting too. 

The term rockabilly is an obvious combination of rock and hillbilly, the fusion of the visceral power of early rock and roll and rollicking backwoods country, with the volume pushed to overload. The typical Fifties rockabilly act was powered by a simple, relentless backbeat, walking bass lines and a shrill skittering lead guitar with leads that are all over the place, the whole guaranteed to promote excitement and frenetic jiving. The Fifties rockabilly bands were the Pacific Northwest punk bands of their day. There were many of them that never made it big, yet released local records and were big in their hometown for a year or two.

Rockabilly, like the blues, never died out and just went underground for many years, apparently kept alive only by the Teddy Boys and neo-Teddy Boys in the UK. It is not coincidental that The Stray Cats made it big in Britain before they became popular in the USA. In the Eighties bands like The Cramps pioneered the punk meets rockabilly subgenre that became known as psychobilly and South Africa even had its own psychobilly band in The Psycho Reptiles. It seemed that psychobilly simply required a huge quaff, punk speed and bad attitude. Currently we have Martin Rocka who not only has the wrestler mask and the power rockabilly riffs but also specialises in quite offensive sexist humour that is probably meant to be cartoonish.

The Ratrod Cats have a quite traditional sound with the obvious advantages of modern technology and they are determined to update a genre that is often the subject of po-faced imitation rather than innovation. The Ratrods do not particularly innovate and there are many echoes of well-known songs and riffs in their self-written songs but, having said that, they also do not sound like a tribute band. On the whole this is a satisfying album though one wishes every now and then that the musicians were not so careful and would just go crazy for a few minutes. Perhaps they save that craziness for the gigs they play.

I am not sure whether the lyrics are sometimes deliberate throwbacks and knowing steals from the standards or are just lazy rhyming. When one seas song titles like “Rock Tonight” or “Rockabilly rebel” one wants to cringe but then there are the wonders of “I Ain’t Lying,” “Under Your Spell” and “Katalina” and the penny drops. These guys can write really good tunes. The only real let down is that vocalist KC Royal does not quite carry off the braggadocio or outright menace that the songs demand. A rockabilly singer must have some manic in him that is just eager to burst out in song.

Although some of the knowing rock and roll clichés are a tad forced and makes one wonder why the songwriters could not have been more original and inventive in their homage, the music is party music and swings quite nicely and is enjoyable to listen to. I would say that this is decent effort as a debut and would hope that The Ratrod Cats can sustain their career fro long enough to release another record with some improved songwriting and music that truly captures the feral intensity of the best rockabilly.

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