Listening to Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats record, I’m carried back in time. Not quite as far as the music that is reflected in their sound, but soon after, in the age of banana-seat bikes strewn across the front lawns of suburban neighborhoods.
When I was about nine, my mom gave me a few Elvis Presley cassettes and one of those rectangular tape recorders with a single speaker and buttons bigger than my damn fingers. Even in the late 70’s, this thing was an antique. For several months, I immersed myself in the 1969 version of Presley, who was reaching for songs that filled his desire to take on a more soulful persona. The end result was an output that included the spectacular “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” The latter single being Presley’s last number 1 before his death in 1977.
Now while Rateliff’s label is the legendary STAX, and he certainly has steeped himself in their historical sound, he is more than a little reminiscent of the blue-eyed soul that became popular in the late 60’s. Van Morrison clearly comes to mind on “Wasting Time” and Rod Stewart’s output with the Jeff Beck Group is evident on “Trying So Hard Not To Know.” However, Rateliff is far grittier and less ethereal than that. His themes are far more relatable than Morrison’s “Into The Mystic” and hold a more universal appeal to fans of Memphis soul. That said, it would be hard to picture Stewart or Morrison dropping a line like “this shit don’t run well / it’s burned out as hell / and it’s trying so hard not know.”
To a certain degree this record is a bit of a time capsule. You wouldn’t be wrong if you suggested that the ghost of Sam Cooke was whispering into Rateliff’s ear during the recording of “Howling at Nothing” as Rateliff’s vocal phrasing is similar to the classic “You Send Me.” Then you have his band that often come out with songs sounding as if they studied with Booker T & the MG’s.
Which brings me back to Presley…
It takes a special kind of musician to evoke a slew of soul greats and retain an energy and sound that is still their own. Springsteen did this by mixing Dylan, a preacher style intensity towards rock ‘n’ roll, a few classic soul influences, and concocted a sound all his own. Nathaniel Rateliff has taken the ’69 comeback version of Elvis, added southern rock themes and walked into a STAX studio to create a record that is instantly relatable. Of course, you would never have caught “the King” singing “son of a bitch / give me a drink” as Rateliff does on “S.O.B”. It just wouldn’t have been very, um… regal.
You may have heard the kind of sound this album produces earlier in your life, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound anything less than awesome in the present. Hell, I bet this record would even sound good off of a crappy one speaker cassette recorder… not that I have one handy…