Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

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Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
(Stax)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It’s safe to say that even diehard cult fans of Nathaniel Rateliff’s two previous introspective, acoustic based singer/songwriter albums didn’t expect him to be fronting a pounding, rollicking, horn-propelled soul revue for his third full length release. Whether the abrupt change in approach came about by an artistic epiphany or Rateliff just felt this was a better way to draw attention to his talents isn’t clear.

Either way with a bevy of positive press and a recent high profile performance on the Tonight Show, it’s working. So, the third time, as they say, seems to be the charm. Although he’s not quite this year’s version of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Rateliff reflects similar influences, in particular Sam Cooke, Van Morrison and especially Motown. His tenor voice connects with the brass and insistent beats but the album’s highlights are the more reserved tracks such as the pedal steel enhanced ballad “Wasting Time,” the swampy, subtle Southern funk of “Shake,” and the sweetly melodic, appropriately titled closer “Mellow Out.”

Producer Richard Swift keeps the groove from getting too slick and when the strangulated guitar solo in “Howling at Nothing” kicks in, it’s clear this is as much rock as soul. Some tunes are too predictable by half like the Motown clomp of “Thank You.” And “Trying So Hard Not to Know” feels like a square peg of a song stuffed into the round hold of an old-school soul arrangement. But “S.O.B”’s gripping lyrics about an alcoholic going through the DTs is a wild example of how a gospel rave up can turn even the most harrowing concepts like “my heart is aching, hands are shaking, bugs crawling all over me” into a thumping, hand clapping, crowd pleasing, swinging sing-along.

Even though a handful of tunes seem forced, for the most part, Rateliff’s material and the brassy, bossy attack work well enough together to suggest this was a savvy career move, both artistically and commercially. Next time, if the songs mesh better with the arrangements, he might have a classic on his hands.

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