It’s a sad and beautiful world as someone, now dead, once sang. ‘C’est La Vie Tragique’, the debut album from Cardiff’s Ratatosk, bears this out like few others, and while mini-albums that slowly luxuriate in tales of madness, shipwreck and desolation are correctly not generally known as triple-floor party bangers, the levels of pathos and finely honed beauty here are high enough to devastate quietly and brilliantly. It’s the work of one Rhodri Viney, who since starting out as the purely acoustic troubadour Teflon Monkey (or Broken Leaf, post legal action) has wandered over the years into promiscuous collaboration (with Gorky’s, Martin Carr, Vito, a Rolodex more) and terrifically tight riff worship (check the lean Right Hand Left Hand machine). Ratatosk seems to have fermented over revelations involving loop pedals, Spanish guitar and musical saw, songs built slowly from bare guitar figures, looped and layered and filled with ghost stories. Live, it’s like being shown how a magic trick works, a blur of instruments picked up and put down, the escalating swirl cut dead by a tap on a foot switch. It’s great.
‘C’est La Vie Tragique’ collects songs whose titles and general theme suggest a reading list would be as good as a tracklisting. ‘The United States South Seas Exploring Expedition’ goes some way to setting out a stall: barely there classical guitar and faraway vocals give way to a central motif gradually loaded with acoustic, accordian and warbling saw. It’s the regretful, sad, sepia mood of the album in excelsis, a widescreen meeting of Matt Elliott, Yann Tiersen and Ennio Morricone. The generalised loneliness runs into specific horror stories – you don’t need to know the grim historical facts behind ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’ (mutiny and shipwreck turning to murder and cannibalism off the Australian coast) or ‘Leendert’ (Dutch sailor abandoned on a tiny island keeps a journal as he slowly dies) to dig the claustrophobic melancholy seeping from the speakers. Elsewhere ‘The Dismal Science’ (word up Thomas Carlyle) squeezes in a great elliptical outro, as well as the word ‘crepuscular’, into its lilting lament, while ‘Damnati ad Bestias’ wrings genuinely spooky thrills out of a gladiator mauled by animals but only hearing the voices of his dead friends. Lovely tune too. Only the closing title track falls anywhere short, a little overarchingly earnest where the preceding songs are effortlessly plush.
Effortless might be deceptive though. Of all the things crammed into these seven songs – electric guitar swells, feverish multitracking, constant eerieness – there’s a weird freshness here, nicely at odds with the musical and historical denseness. It’s not jolly, but neither is life. ‘C’est La Vie Tragique’ isolates great moments of beauty and sadness, and is hauntingly good.
Available from http://ratatosk.bandcamp.com or Spillers Records in Cardiff