Nathaniel Rateliff’s music sits at the intersection of two dovetailing contemporary music trends: the rise and continued endurance of folk revivalism, the kind of bootstomping earnestness popularized by groups like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, (or their honky-tonk 50s rockabilly equivalent, JD McPherson). The other trend is the retro-soul of groups like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, Leon Bridges, and St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Because of this, Rateliff is going to be a huge huge star. He sold out the Record Bar nearly three months in advance, and the next time he rolls through town he’ll likely be filling the Uptown Theater or some place even larger. Luckily, Rateliff’s music is worthy of his ascendant profile. His gruff voice bellows, howls, and cajoles, and his burly, hulking frame and leering stage presence, are commanding, even intimidating. Rateliff will kick your ass and then steal your girl, and to make matters worse, he can dance like James Brown, as he demonstrated on a recent breakout performance on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon.
“S.O.B.” is the hit single from this album. The vocals snarl, the handclaps and fingersnaps and humming backing vocals imitate field hollers, and the chorus races forward with a frenetic recklessness that is as beautiful as it is alarming. Rateliff is a perceptive interpreter of revivalist trends, but he seems reluctant to embrace them wholeheartedly. His songs aren’t easily identifiable as folk or soul music. The guitars let you know that this is rock n’ roll, but the horn blasts and organ and piano seem most influenced by soul and rhythm and blues. “I Need Never Get Old” is a real burner, and “Howling at Nothing” lopes forward with a slinky riff recalling Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band whose influence is sprinkled into many of these songs.
“Shake” might be the album’s most adventurous track, with a warbling tremolo and swampy shuffle that recall Pops Staples. However, Rateliff’s music is also quite savvy in its pursuit of a pop audience, as it often welcomes in influences likely to appeal to fans who may find the barnburners a little off-putting. “Mellow Out” is especially guilty of pandering to pop sensibilities. Tracks like “I’ve Been Falling” and “Wasting Time” also arrive with sleek exteriors and sweeping choruses and that are easy to digest. They aren’t bad songs, but they often suffer in comparison to the raucous, freewheeling, kick-you-in-the-teeth abandon that makes this album’s best tracks such a joy.
Overall, Rateliff is refreshing, but I worry subsequent releases will continue to push his music even further away from the gruff ebullience that makes him so endearing and promising as a forward-looking caretaker and preservationist of American roots music.
Recommended If You Like: JD McPherson, Alabama Shakes, Leon Bridges, Creedence Clearwater Revival
Recommended Tracks: 5 (but don’t overplay it), 8, 2, 1, 9
Do Not Play: 3
Written by Vince Meserko on 09/03/15