It’s one thing to put out an EP; it’s another to advertise it as an EP that rose from the ashes of your last LP. Conversely, having that previous LP be a couple of years old is entirely different. But that’s what Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats did with their latest five-song set, What If I, and the results feel exactly like five songs that didn’t have a place on 2021’s The Future, which is exactly what this release is. In some ways, it’s admirable – artists have a hard enough time focusing on the Full Album these days rather than the Song, so an EP, at this point, is somewhat of a novelty. In other ways, it feels like a lazy afterthought, borne out of a desire to tour this summer and needing something new to promote.
The fun part is that these songs are pretty good, no matter which way you look at it. So much so that when they wind down after about 21 minutes, the listening experience feels only half-done, a mildly frustrating reality that elicits hope these guys would have guys toughed it out for another five songs and released a full-length. If nothing else, this short set highlights the group’s versatility, and even if these are after-thoughts from an old album, they are still worth the listener’s time.
The best moment comes quickly with “Buy My Round”, the Mark Shusterman brainchild that takes the spotlight off Rateliff and opens the set with Abbey Road curiosity and a scatting hook that won’t soon leave the ears. It’s a jangly pop tune that leans heavily on a slinking organ and a full ensemble of players that colors in the lines nicely. The song is so good that it unfairly raises expectations that are impossible to meet for the rest of the EP.
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwhile things to discover. “Slow Pace of Time” is a jazzy New Orleans comedown that feels almost entirely new in the Rateliff oeuvre. Most of that could be because of the presence of Preservation Hall Jazz Band‘s Charlie Gabriel, but even if that’s the case, it’s one thing to bring in some NOLA authenticity, but it’s another to pull it off with so much accuracy. Here, Rateliff and the Night Sweats do just that; the results are as delicious as any meal in the French Quarter.
Meanwhile, “Suffer Me” is pretty standard Night Sweat stuff. Leaning more on Southern rock here than elsewhere, the track comes off as an homage to the days when Credence Clearwater Revival weren’t yet known as classic rock. Complete with a bed of organs and an anthemic groove, it does the Stax imprint proud, mixing warm soul and call-to-action ethos. The title song’s alternate version evokes that same spirit, exuding the same qualities while paired with little more than a funky piano and Rateliff’s drawl. The only real miss is “That’s Your Opinion”, but that’s only because it sees the band’s leader return to his acoustic roots and considered alongside a short set with other, more interesting compositions, the proceedings could have used more horns and less tenderness. It’s the only time the notion that these songs are quasi-castoffs feels real.
Taken as a whole, that could be forgiven, however, merely because of how strong “Round and “Time” are, not only in the context of this EP but the Night Sweats’ catalogue as a whole. So, while What If I might only be for fans and completists, it still carries weight as a fun aside that’s worth the time of Southern music fans – be it soul, rock, jazz, or blues. In a world driven more by the Song than anything else, this has at least a couple of tracks that should remain a staple in the Night Sweats’ live sets for years to come.