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Rats On Rafts
Rats On Rafts / De Kift Richard Foster , November 10th, 2016 19:56

I remember the first time, on a warm day in a park in the south of Rotterdam. At a municipal festival, full of grazing “Roffa types” on a day out; parading tattoos, bull terriers and Feyenoord shirts. Free music; a hot sun; overpriced beer. A half-full tent, a mix of wallflower trendies, bullish teens, old punks, and half-curious metropolitan types watched the first incarnation of this extended group. Would it work? It was immediately apparent that there was something special happening, despite the odd sound hiccup and the understandable unfamiliarity both bands felt in presenting this new show. It felt right.

And now, three years down the line, we have this LP. It’s still a logical move, given the pleasure these two independent-minded acts always seem to have in each other’s company. In effect, a remix LP by the bands themselves - recorded live and analogue, in true DIY tradition in a makeshift sound studio in Zaandam - the record takes tracks from Rats on Rafts’ last, utterly brilliant record, Tape Hiss and selected moments from De Kift’s long career. While this isn’t really a new exercise for De Kift (having previously worked with the likes of Franz Ferdinand), for Rats, this record is a watershed. Rats on Rafts are a remarkable band, driven for the most part round the vision of their impulsive, creative singer, David Fagan. A throwback to tough and mercurial, ever-changing ‘60s acts like the Pretty Things, and still frighteningly young, Rats have worked through a heap of styles and situations over the last decade. And this record allows their new rhythm section to draw creative stock, bed down and plot new campaigns.

It isn’t really fair, outside of saying that there is a lighter touch to the rhythm section, to talk about how things have changed sonically for Rats on Rafts. Due to the number of musicians playing on this release, it’s difficult to discern who truly does what. And regardless: for those coming to both bands’ works for the first time, this is a very enjoyable and giving listen. Celebratory in fact. It’s an old-style review record, a sort of post-punk, multilingual gang show that has the vim and vigour of 1960s review soundtracks like Oliver about it. It also nods to an old and very strong tradition of working class (and punk) cabaret and chanson in the Netherlands; Tedje en de Flikkers, Speedtwins, Tante Leen and Johnny Jordan, Ramses Shaffy and Liesbeth List all sprang into this reviewer’s mind whilst listening.

So what can we say about this vibrant, bubbling stew? Well, the sound is unsurprisingly brilliant, a fully bodied and rich paean to both acts’ creative abilities. If one is allowed - to copy the manner of an Arabian artist adding an imperfection into their work so as not to challenge the perfection of God’s creation - sometimes the record feels a little too perfect, too rich, too netjes. A reworking of past glories. Setting the gaasbakken in order in the cold cell. Fixing the hinge on the shed door. But these are all minor points.

But, by the same token, we should talk about just how good De Kift’s brass sound is on the record, especially when mixed into the angular metallic guitar runs of Rats of Rafts. That rusty, clanging sound of the Rotterdam docks, perfected by David Fagan and guitarist Arnold Verheul, is given an emotional warmth and impish humour by the brass stabs and parps from Ferry Heine, Han Hulscher and Patrick Votrian. These trills and blasts add a thrilling counterpoint to the opener, ‘Last Day On De Zon’, giving it a new third eye. When Ferry Heine starts his poetic commentary, the track descends into a highly enjoyable, if ever-so-slightly controlled chaos. These kind of intelligent, contrasting arrangements (heard to great effect on ‘Sleep Little Links 2 3 4’ and ‘Powder Monkey’ add another, more subtle dimension to the Rats on Rafts sound, which would, in the past, just bludgeon its way out of trouble. Rats’ groove-based music is based on energy and determination, and when De Kift’s wry sonic counterpoints are added it makes - for want of a better phrase - sweet music.

What is also immediately noticeable is that Rats singer David Fagan sounds a much, much better singer; less constrained, and more ready to run through different personas or try out a new emotional range. Fagan has often championed a non-singing singer approach (in the manner of one of his heroes, Mark E Smith). But here he seems to have opened up. I think that this development is to some extent due to the influence of De Kift’s Ferry Heine, who is (to my mind) one of the most simpatico and clever singers in The Netherlands. Maybe Fagan’s also got bored of singing the same songs these past two years and decided to have a little fun at their expense. But it feels a shame that these developments didn’t find their way on the original version of Tape Hiss as the seeds had been sown - and heard - on a limited release cassette that Rats on Rafts brought out prior to that record, with all sorts of interesting vocal experiments on it.

For those looking for an introduction to the world of both bands, this is an excellent gateway recording. It’s not really representative of their previous works. Rather (and I mean this in the most positive manner) it’s an excellent pastiche. Further, it captures the “feel” of both bands brilliantly, Rats’ raw impatient aggression and De Kift’s world-weary, “kitchen sink” positivity. And as a listen regardless of any knowledge of these two acts (putting them both out of my mind for a second) it’s very, very rewarding. Recommended for the curious.