Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats
Twangy Telecasters drenched in reverb. Soulful vocals pleading for a second chance. A horn section that knocks you into next week. Simply put, the self-titled debut from Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats has it all.
A few weeks ago, a buddy of mine posted a link to “Howling at Nothing,” track two from the record, on my Facebook page, and I was immediately intrigued. Featuring a laid-back rhythm guitar hook that sounds like it’s had a mint julep or two, it’s an ode to sleeping on the floor, howling at the moon and promising someone you’ll never let them go, even if you both know that can’t possibly be true. It was more than enough to get me to download the album, which did not disappoint.
This record pulses with the energy of a Depression-era tent revival. Rateliff’s vocals address the listener with the authority of a man who has been around the block enough times to know what’s going on, especially when amplified by a chorus of his fellow ne’er-do-wells. Think of it as a true rhythm-and-blues record with a healthy dose of soul and gospel. While his lyrics may say otherwise, Rateliff’s voice ultimately assures the listener that somehow, someway, everything is going to be all right, while the Night Sweats (Joseph Pope III, Patrick Meese, Luke Mossman, Mark Shusterman, Wesley Watkins and Andy Wild) lay down a sweet groove to keep the party going into the wee small hours of the morning.
The record begins with “I Need Never Get Old,” a horn-inflected ode to wayward youth and lost love. It lays back a bit into “Howling at Nothing” before picking up some steam on “Trying So Hard Not To Know,” a song that calls us out for our collective apathy toward one another’s heartache.
It shifts gears again with “I’ve Been Failing,” an honest admission of fault that ends on a hopeful note. “S.O.B.” begins with a gospel choir humming along to a foot tap and a hand clap while Rateliff sings, “I’m gonna need someone to help me,” before ultimately resolving, “If I can’t get clean, I’m gonna drink my life away.” The song’s juxtaposition of lyrics suggesting delirium tremens and upbeat gospel music is particularly effective, suggesting the singer is equally damned or saved, no matter which path he takes.
“Wasting Time” is the record’s one dull moment, sounding as if it should be played at the end of an episode of “Dawson’s Creek.” Still, it’s hardly a bad song – it’s just far less interesting than the rest of the album.
Thankfully, the next track, “Thank You,” picks things up with the same vibe the band put out on “Howling at Nothing.” Rateliff’s lyrics gain a great deal of their weight through the power of repetition, and that technique is on full display here when he repeats the line, “I just want to thank you,” 17 times. In the hands of a lesser vocalist, this might get dull, but Rateliff’s ability to sing honestly from the heart holds it all together.
“Look It Here” sees the song’s protagonist reduced to his knees in front of the woman he loves, something anyone who has been in love has had to do at one time or another. Again, the music here is upbeat and playful, despite the desperation in the singer’s lyrics, suggesting an eventual reconciliation.
“Shake” is a lesson in seduction, its serpentine bassline underscoring lyrics like, “Get on your knees and come to me now. I hope you really like to swing wild.” “I’d Be Waiting” is a lovely, sincere expression of dedication with Rateliff declaring, “I’d be waiting pretty baby just to dance with you.”
The album ends on an uplifting note with “Mellow Out,” leaving the listener with a sing-song “Doo doo doo doo” as a parting gift.
The music here is fairly simple, which is part of its allure. Rateliff isn’t re-inventing the wheel; he’s plugging a Telecaster into a Fender amp, turning the reverb way up and playing songs people can dance to. It’s an honest, solid record, the kind we might see more of if we lived in a parallel universe where Sam Cooke was the most influential artist of all time. The songs are catchy and memorable, and they leave plenty of refrains bouncing around their listeners’ noggins. Although lyrics about love, loss and the possibility of redemption have certainly been written before, it is Rateliff’s delivery that sets them apart and makes them seem new to the listener. In a world where others focus mainly on the “rock” portion of the holy trinity, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats dare to focus on the “roll,” and the result is sublime.