Photo: Brantley Gutierrez (Sacks & Co.)

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats Bests Their Debut with ‘Tearing at the Seams’

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats have taken their authentic late '60s soul aesthetic and refined it with tight songwriting and instrumental performances, creating a more electrifying album experience than their debut.

Tearing at the Seams
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
9 March 2018

We often talk about the rock revivals that seem to happen every decade or so, bringing back the sounds of the past (most often, the late ’60s), and embrace the infusion of the past with welcoming arms and ears. But it seems that soul revivals don’t often get that same type of attention. But with artists like Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark, Jr., St. Paul & The Broken Bones, as well as a renewed appreciation of artists like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Mavis Staples, a ’60s soul revival is in the air. Coming towards the forefront of this movement, Nathaniel Rateliff, who formerly performed as a solo Van Morrison-inspired folk artist, switched gears by joining the Night Sweats and helped to bring the legendary Stax Records into this new soul revival with the foot-stomping smash “S.O.B.” and its follow-up “I Need Never Get Old”.

The musical and vocal homages paid to the likes of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Booker T. & The MGs created a throwback aesthetic, which carried the Night Sweats to a successful debut on their eponymous record. Now releasing their sophomore effort, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats have taken their authentic late ’60s soul aesthetic and refined it with tight songwriting and instrumental performances, creating a more electrifying album experience than their debut.

Although Rateliff & company’s brand of ’60s soul revival is one of the truest renditions of the genre, it offers no deep social arguments as to its place and purpose in 2018. Whereas contemporaries like the late Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings or Alabama Shakes have done more to draw parallels between the social issues of the 1960s and the ones plaguing the present, Tearing at the Seams stays mostly at the personal and relational level with themes of love, loss, and life’s hardships.

But the Night Sweats’ music is most importantly about moving. Sure there were the political songs of the ’60s like “A Change is Gonna Come” and contemplative tracks like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. But much of the essence of ’60s soul was also centered around letting loose and having a good time with the music. And this time around, Rateliff & The Night Sweats paid special attention to making the music move all the way through. The horns section especially carries their weight, turning out exhilarating performance after exhilarating performance from the swampy opener “Shoe Boot” to the ironic seventh track “Intro” which opens with a Vincent Price-esque laugh before being thrust into a mostly instrumental James Brown funk jam. These performances are a welcome improvement from the Night Sweats’ debut, which seemed to lose steam halfway through the record and never regained it.

Rateliff’s folk songwriting past still comes out strong from time to time and fuses excellently with his group’s tight playing. “Hey Mama” shares a conversation between a self-pitying prodigal son-type narrator and his mother who responds with the candid challenge: “Better start acting like this here’s a race / You ain’t gone far enough to say at least I tried / You ain’t worked hard enough to say, well, I’ve done mine.” The song parallels Biblical imagery both from the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the words of St. Paul: “Do you know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to take the prize.” This Biblical connection sheds light on Rateliff’s wrestle with his religious past and how his apostasy has affected family ties.

Rateliff seemingly responds to the challenge optimistically on the uplifting lead single “You Worry Me”: “I’m alright today / You gonna find a way to cross and you gonna get there.” On this, the most modern-sounding track of the album, the songwriter expresses that in the present, he is finding a way to “act like this here’s a race” and to “leave it all out there.” On Tearing at the Seams, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats show off their hard work, their tightening as a band, and their high energy, irresistible performances. And if all those improvements from their debut to the present is any indication of their trajectory, it’s easy to be optimistic about their future.

RATING 8 / 10