April 21, 2016

EP: ratbath - dead skin cells

ratbath's latest EP beautifully muses on change, distance, and transition.

dead skin cells, ratbath’s newest EP on Fox Food Records, is a collection of recordings that is best described as fleeting. Six lean tracks fly by in just over ten minutes, with simple and delicate plucks and strums of the ukulele backing Karlie Efinger’s earnest poems that muse on changes, distance, and transition. Recorded on an iPhone in Efinger’s apartment in one night, these songs have a definite immediacy to them, like an attempt to cement a sense of time and place and feeling in a phase of life that might otherwise lack that kind of stability. Efinger posted a poem by Becca Uliasz alongside the songs, wondering about what we leave behind – literally, dead skin cells (lending the EP its title) – and what we take with us from our surroundings. It’s a constant exchange, she posits: “until we aren’t us or here or there but a new thing altogether.” It’s a perfect entry into these songs, which sort out the boundaries of identity, of here and there, then and now. 

A Montanan-turned-New-Yorker, Efinger’s recent move to the city is audible in her progression from heavy black curtain, ratbath’s 2015 debut on Tummy Tuck Records, to dead skin cells. In her native Montana, she describes the more peaceful pace of life, physical space of her home, and the luxury of having time alone to fully submerge herself into her own often dark feelings. She was able to carefully pull out what she meant into lyrics at the piano for the songs that appear on heavy black curtain. On the other hand, she says, “New York stripped me of that solitude and slow pace – even that darkness. […] It’s easy to lose your sense of self while swimming with millions of people.” dead skin cells are New York songs, then – “naturally condensed, as is everything here”, according to Efinger. She’s taken to writing on subways, practicing on rooftops, and recording hastily to Voice Memos in her apartment, leaving in the honest marks of imperfection and coincidence. You can hear it in the ambulance that wails by nearly in time on “dark hearts” as Efinger empathizes with the darkness of someone else, seeing herself reflected back in it: “Your wish to die makes me cry / so I cry for you often / (from my own coffin).” You can hear it, too, on “cereal” – maybe the most specific and personal song of the batch, one about internalizing criticism and escaping it, littered with cereal boxes, pok√©mon, sporting store clocks -- where the final note comes out muted and Efinger laughs about the “shitty ending”, infinitely lighter than the song itself.

But besides the change in pace, her move to New York has afforded her space – the span of nearly the whole country – to look back over her shoulder. “I’m still processing the removal of myself from these subjects,” Efinger says. Over two thousand miles away, she sings about what it means to not be there (for family, friends, relationships) as much as what it means to come from that place. On “mother”, there’s palpable absence, distance, and invisibility as she sings “my mom didn’t see me” and “my lungs hungry / for black blood / for a sheet of paper / for all the water / and my mother”. It’s a familiar and impossible ache to return home, to childhood, to an origin. Efinger writes the rest of her songs from the other side of that divide, with her heart in one place but her life in another. “You broke my little heart / when thunder struck your little life / while we were apart”, she sings on “dark hearts”. She goes about her normal routine on “projection”, but is “sending thoughts” all day to someone out of her sight. “sun drops” finds her more torn between places, trying to move on in her new life, thinking of someone trying to move on back home in their own: “I thought I oughta wake up / in a bed I didn’t know / turns out yours was too hard to let go … You thought you oughta wake up / in a bed you didn’t know / maybe I was too far or too slow”. She finds some space and escapes up on the rooftop, musing “I’ve got bigger problems, you know / some are harder to let go.” The final song, “will you”, offers some optimism on bridging the distance: “I bet your words can move / just like your hands do”. But there is also some bittersweet resignation that the distance will stay: “Miss you, miss you / we’ll always see the same moon / the same big blue moon / same big blue.” There is always the impossibility of being in two places at once, being all things to everyone who needs you, but regardless we are still always made up in part by all of the people places and times – here and there, then and now – even if we shed them, like dead skin cells.


Listen to ratbath on bandcamp.


Catherine DeGennaro is a writer and musician who spends most of her time living on and thinking about mountains in Western Massachusetts. You can find her whispering into the void @cdegennaro.