In the early summer of 2010, my best friend bought me tickets to see one of my favorite performers at the time, Tallest Man on Earth. In line, before the show, two men stepped out the front doors and both lit up smokes. One, short and petite, who I recognized to be Tallest Man, and the other, only slightly taller, with a bushy handlebar mustache and a round gut held in by denim, who my friend recognized as a performer who knew as Nathaniel Rateliff, the night’s opener. The show that followed that evening lived up to the praise my friend had given him. He sang in long, sad shouts. And when he did, he would kick and shake. He was a livewire jammed into the ears of his audience. While I have enjoyed his particular brand of rock-folk every year since, I have been waiting for the self titled debut from his new band for approaching five years now. Following a standing ovation on The Tonight Show and years of buzz (from people other than myself) the group has finally dropped the record, consequentially making every second of waiting worth it.
One of my least favorite modern musical trends is the over releasing of singles. With the shrinking of average album length, this problem can be especially damning. Like the modern comedy flick, most singles released give listeners the best parts of the record, leaving the lesser tracks to be released on their own. It’s incredibly frustrating, and I’m happy to say that Rateliff has successfully side stepped this pitfall. With the exception of one track (which we’ll get to later) each is as thoughtfully played, and as vital as the last. While the throwback vibe is the foundation of the record, its application in each song sways in either direction, dipping into to modern chart bangers and timeless, jaunting swingers alike. Wailing soul tune “Howling at Nothing” plays like a modern classic. Think Raphael Saadiq, or some of the more up paced tracks from Leon Bridges. Cagey strings, and a slow bustle stirred with the sonorous Rateliff bark let these tracks go down like a whiskey sour.
Though his musical prowess is spread out lovingly to three different projects (the Night Sweats, his solo work, and his first band, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Wheel) his vocal work has been a constant high throughout. Even in tracks like “Trying So Hard Not to Know” which feels a tad under paced, and ends out of nowhere, Rateliff manages to perform with the force of some bald-headed punk vocalist, and the passion of a blues man. While the new soulful mantle fits him, “Wasting Times” proves Rateliff isn’t entirely rid of his folk roots. Taking a rhythmical lead from “The Weight,” the track shimmers like Paul Simon meets Marcus Mumford.
While the instrumentals are shiny, and the melodies sweet and swooning, my favorite quality of this record is the love present in the work. Not only in the soulful, pleading love songs like “Thank You” and “I’d Be Waiting,” but in the passion fueling the tunes. When listening to Rateliff’s entire body of work, he exhibits an innate ability to make each song feel vital. Though I’m quite obviously swooning over this record, Rateliff’s true test will be when it comes time for the Night Sweats’ sophomore effort. its premature to worry about this now, still basking in the glow of their debut, but a sound like this runs the risk of becoming clichéd if not handled delicately. The throwback feeling seems a tough trend to successfully carry into multiple albums. The Black Keys ditched their vibes for a more focused rock sound, and the Alabama Shakes handed in their classic tunes for a modern pop sheen. Only time will tell how Rateliff and his crew deal with their sophomore effort. For now, kick back, grab ten of your closest friends, twice as many beers, and enjoy what might be the best record of the summer. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats will be playing in Aspen at the end of the month, and Red Rocks in the second week of August. Find Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats at Twitter and Facebook.