Debut albums can be a tricky proposition. On the one hand, it’s essential to make an immediate impression. On the other, you don’t want to raise the bar too high so that succeeding efforts dwell in the shadows of that effort that came before. Especially since that initial attempt is the culmination of a lifetime of songwriting whereas a sophomore set has to be cobbled together quickly, meaning that the new material has the benefit of only months of planning and generally not years.
Whether Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats fall prey to that double edged sword remains to be seen, but based on the strengths they already show, they likely don’t have reason to worry. While Rateliff himself released a solo album In Memory Loss in 2011, the band’s eponymous debut is so riveting, so spirited, so damn triumphant, it’s bound to attract the attention that Rateliff’s bow failed to find. There is reason for that however; Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is imbued with such a vintage sound, it’s going to grab attention regardless. It’s apt that it appears on the legendary Stax Records label, as its style brings to mind that company’s earliest icons — Booker T & the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Rufus Thomas and all the others that made Stax the black record label capable of rivalling Motown in its sheer volume of talent and tenacity. Produced by Richard Swift, the man most associated with the Shins, it recalls that the Stax sound with an unabashed authenticity.
Happily though, the Night Sweats emulate rather than imitate. Their sound is so exuberant, any attempt to degrade their approach would be moot regardless. On songs such as “I Need Never Get Old,” “S.O.B.” and “Thank You,” the enthusiasm is entirely contagious, a brass-infused take on classic R&B that’s been all but forgotten in the wake of rap, hip hop and everything else that passes for soul music these days. The only modern comparison might be Bruno Mars, but it’s also evident that while Rateliff has his name up front, there’s no single star in this bunch. Rather, credit has to go to all those involved — Rateliff (vocals, guitar), Joseph Pope III (guitar), Patrick Meese (drums) and Mark Shusterman (keyboard). Kudos should go to Swift as well, for he’s the savvy individual who was able to harness all this talent and give it cohesive form.
Then again, cohesive may not be the right word. Yes, the musicianship is tight and clearly polished, but the band’s ability to express their music with such insistent energy and a dynamic drive doesn’t exactly tie them to the tried and true. Yes, there’s a familiarity that echoes through these grooves, but it’s not a familiarity that breeds contempt. Not by a long shot. Rather, it reminds us of what music was like when gimmicks and hype wasn’t needed to sustain it. That’s likely reason why this first outing won’t thwart their chances in the future. With this legacy to live up to, there’s clearly more to explore.