More often than not, girly mags and rom-coms tell young folk that courtship (and breakups) must involve some sort of deception. They lay out “tests” to prove the charming target’s loyalty, and suggest diffident airs to feign so that you’ll entice a chase. But when you live outside the status quo, you soon realize that real, mutual relationships don’t form (or break) with such catch-and-release tactics. The folks in L.A.’s Rat Fancy certainly aren’t the first to staple their hearts on their sleeves with power pop. But Diana Barraza and Gregory Johnson share something more: They’re proud to hold hands and stand out.
As such, the band’s proper debut adds more than just extra decibels to the gang’s whirligig twee approach. Granted, Barraza’s beefier riffs are nothing to sneeze at—just listen to the sugar-rush punk on “Stuck With You,” where new drummer Matt Sturgis kicks into overdrive. Rat Fancy has never been so bold before; 2017’s Suck A Lemon EP skewed way closer to candy-floss twee (with, as the name implies, a pinch of world-weary sour). Still, the sweetness still prevails on Stay Cool, as our protagonist sets up a clever parallel between messed-up tattoos that won’t rub off and a friend or lover that she hopes never fades away. Ditto for “Finely Knitted,” a Cars-esque chug where Barraza laments the loss of her favorite sweater, and not the ex who “borrowed” it. So, for Rat Fancy, this newly harnessed firepower amplifies the many emotions that Barraza could already convey with such poise.
Perhaps it’s more fitting to think of Stay Cool as a fortification of the ramparts, not ammunition for the artillery. “Never Is Forever” lays down solid, arena-thick walls between Barraza and the creeps who sneak into gigs: “They’ve got to know, they’ve got to see/You’re not for us, you’re not for me.” Likewise, “Making Trouble” steels the nerves of skittish romantics who’ve always felt too awkward to fess up to their lover with congenial jangling and a consolation: “It’s OK to be mad, and it’s OK to feel so strange.”
That pinch of kooky is key to the message—these days, only the weirdos seem to cut through the chit-chat to speak their minds. For those aficionados of the weird, Barraza manages to sneak in a couple supernatural media homages onto the album. Power-ballad bruiser “RIP Future” describes the present day as a “twilight zone,” where day-to-day social life often leads to petty arguments and unfounded demands. On the flip, the C86 echoes of Rat Fancy’s revised “Beyond Belief” plays out somewhat like one of the nicer scenarios from the same show, as Barraza meditates on the protagonist’s sleepless night alone. Could something as fleeting as love kept this person awake? Fact or fiction? Barraza answers unanimously: “The truth is, the truth is shining like a light.”
As breezy as Stay Cool might feel on the surface, a quiet and affirming force pulses underneath. Rat Fancy has grown leaps and bounds in the past two years. And yet, as decent folks who you can always turn to with open arms, they really haven’t changed. And the girly mags never told you that friends like that are worth locking down.