Three years before Justin Timberlake stopped shaving and retreated to a cabin in the woods, bearded Colorado singer Nathaniel Rateliff was already showing the appeal – and power – of rustic-white-dude soul. Rateliff looked like Garth Hudson, and his woodsy take on vintage Southern R&B was on point enough to get him signed to iconic Memphis label Stax Records. But his self-titled 2015 debut with the Night Sweats was about more than reverent growling. Rateliff, who started his career playing folk and alt-rock, brought raw introspection to songs like the hit “S.O.B.,” a barroom freak-out about his struggles with alcoholism.
Unsurprisingly, Rateliff doubles down on roadhouse retro for Tearing at the Seams, his second album with the Night Sweats, which arrives after a quickie EP and a live album. Reflecting the Night Sweats’ relentless touring since their breakthrough, tracks like the largely instrumental shuffle “Shoe Boot” are punchier than anything on their debut, jacked up by swelling organs and the band’s plump horn section. Rooted in a grinding sax and a caffeinated groove, “Intro” recalls interracial Sixties soul band the Electric Flag. Meanwhile, the cautiously optimistic “You Worry Me” shows the band is interested in more than just simulations of R&B past, burnishing modern guitar rumble with light electronics.
Rateliff remains a brooding party animal. A big Leonard Cohen fan, he sprinkles Cohenesque lines throughout the album. “While I needed you, it was never a choice of mine,” he offers in the jubilant-sounding “Be There.” Rateliff really hits emotional pay dirt in “Hey Mama,” in which a mother chastises her son for feeling sorry for himself: “You ain’t run far enough to say my legs have failed.” While not strictly autobiographical, the song hints at Rateliff’s own tragic backstory (his father was killed in a car accident when Nathaniel was in his early teens), sounding convincingly pained as the Night Sweats horns surge behind him.
can be guilty of overwriting, as in the jumble of raging-wildfire images that
drag down “Still Out There Running.” His husky voice can lack the
suppleness of classic soul singers; when he taps into his inner Sam Cooke on
the dusky “Babe I Know,” he sounds more fatigued than uplifted. Yet
even when he overshoots, Rateliff’s restless throwback sound feels like it’s
moving toward real revelations. You’d have to think his mama would be proud.