Before Nathaniel Rateliff put together his new soul band the Night Sweats, the Denver musician was regarded as a latter-day folk singer on the fringes of Mumford & Sons’ neo-roots revival. Given his music, the designation was understandable, but it was also incomplete. Rateliff’s songs on a pair of solo albums were often built around fingerpicked acoustic guitar and showcased his voice, a startling instrument given to volatile swings from a resonant murmur to massive surges of emotion. Yet there’s always been more than a little soul coursing through his songs, too.
The Night Sweats, then, isn’t a new direction for Rateliff so much as a reconnection to music he’s been singing at least since it helped him pass the hours when he worked on a Denver loading dock before becoming a full-time musician. It’s a natural sound for Rateliff, so much so that this 11-song collection found a home on Stax, the revived Memphis label that was such a big part of soul music in the 1960s and ’70s. Indeed, these tunes have a vintage air about them in the trebly guitar riffs, bright sprays of brass and punchy basslines, circling tightly around rock-solid drums.
Atop such a powerful engine, Rateliff glories in his role as soul shouter. He belts out the lyrics with sweaty abandon on opener “I Need Never Get Old” over a boogaloo guitar part and stacked layers of horns, and builds “S.O.B.” from wordless, hummed vocals and handclaps to a bluff, full-throated roar. For all the Southern soul touchstones on the album, moments like those evoke more distant shores, and another barrel-chested, blue-eyed soul missionary with electric intensity: Belfast-born Van Morrison circa Moondance or Tupelo Honey.
That same commanding presence is evident throughout, though Rateliff slows down occasionally, too, without losing any of his passion. He strikes a melancholic tone on “Wasted Time,” with waves of steel guitar that blow through like a cool breeze on a sweltering night, while slippery electric piano and the faint glimmer of comped guitar chords lend a torchy feel to “I’d Be Waiting” as Rateliff croons in the middle ground between confident suitor and wistful fantasist.
It’s that same mix, along with cast of locked-in musicians, that makes Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats such an engrossing album, and while the singer and his band are drawing on a classic form, their interpretation makes for an exciting and contemporary sound.