ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
February 16, 2020
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
And It's Still Alright isn't exactly a neat return to Nathaniel Rateliff's solo turf. I'm a great fan of those projects, 2010's In Memory of Loss and '13's largely overlooked Falling Faster Than You Can Run. And I distinctively remember both my confusion and my anticipation upon hearing of his Night Sweats project. Amplifying a soul and showmanship that were hidden in his early career, it opened doors that had been unreachable as a solo artist. Both Night Sweats collections earned places on my year-end favorites, even as I publicly hoped for another singer-songwriter project.
Turns out Rateliff was writing for that solo record even as 2018's Tearing At the Seams was being assembled. Songs that didn't fit the spirit or the character of the Night Sweats were temporarily tabled in favor of those that might lend themselves better to the band's larger ensemble stage spectacle. Both Night Sweats records were produced alongside Richard Swift, at his humble National Freedom studio in beautiful Cottage Grove, Oregon (very near where I grew up, incidentally). Rateliff describes how Swift became like a brother to him, a kindred musical mind who reportedly encouraged the writer to pursue those solo urges, to follow his muse in new directions.
Richard Swift's tragic death at age 41 sent his friend into a spiral, compounded by the end of Rateliff's marriage and the onset of middle age. That's largely the setting for And It's Still Alright, the emotional fuel that sets fire to his new songs. I guess that's the point of the whole record, Rateliff commented in a recent interview, acknowledging the heaviness of all that and moving forward and still finding joy.
Nathaniel Rateliff will sometimes speak of the different characters he assumes in each of his projects, aspects of his personality to which he gives lead depending upon the spirit of the music. While the man we meet on Alright seems more akin to the softspoken, introspective artist we encountered on those earlier solo works, there are also aspects of the engaging showman on some of the new songs. While Rateliff won't break into the shuffling dance step that garnered him so much attention delivering the ubiquitous "SOB", this new collection couldn't have happened without the musical and personal confidence Rateliff accrued while fronting the Night Sweats.
For one thing, he has evolved as a singer. The gruff folkie who would mumble his incantations over an acoustic guitar is scarce here, with "Kissing Our Friends" standing as the sole sensitive-guy-with-a-guitar moment. Instead, Rateliff delivers songs like "Time Stands" with much of his Night Sweats brawny soulfulness on display. In exchange for the ensemble's funkiness, there is a Harry Nilsson theatricality peppered throughout. "What a Drag" is set to a loosely jazzy guitar and finger snaps, and strings just this side of schmaltzy cushion several tracks.
With so much emotional work to do, it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of the identity of the you from song to song. Rateliff himself seems to be the focus of some pieces, while others are directed to his -ex or to Swift. No matter the subject, the writer continues to wear his heart on his sleeve, communicating great anger, regret or deep sadness with a howl or a cry. On "Kissing Our Friends", he addresses his former wife: I ran the water for your bath / But you never came in. "Mavis" finds the singer looking over his should at the wake of his relationship: I recall a time, you were mine / And all the time you bared your teeth / It was always just a smile for me. Drums and a choir kick in halfway through.
Alright features Rateliff surrounded by cohorts like DeVotchKa's Tom Hagerman on strings, and Luke Mossman of Night Sweats on guitar. The outfit is strongest on cuts where they are allowed to stretch on to the corners of a track. The beautiful "Tonight #2" is built on Spanish-inspired guitar and yearning strings: Tonight, you're a one-armed man / Pinned to the ground in the coolest pose ... Tonight / We'll pretend we're friends. "You Need Me" and "Expecting to Lose" are the CD's loosest arrangements, with Rateliff vamping on Roger Miller-esque doo-dit-doo's. The latter rides on a swampy electric groove.
At the heart of the album are the moments where Rateliff struggles to express his grief at Swift's passing. The title cut is one of the year's most engaging singles, an introspective and soul-searching acoustic number, filled out by Eric Swanson's pedal steel: I'll be damned if this old man / Don't start to count his losses / But it's still alright. It's a song that is imbued with real emotion, and one of the high watermarks of Rateliff's career. Even more effecting is "Rush On", the record's closing number. In a heartbroken vocal, the singer confronts both guilt and gratitude, conducting an emotional wake: I hoped like a prayer / That your brokenness would leave you / But months turned to years / And the emptiness prevailed. Rateliff lays bare his heart on the session, offering the collection's most cutting and direct lyric: All the love and cries could not shake you from your rest / Would've given up my sight to take the jaundice from your skin.
And It's Still Alright presents Nathaniel Rateliff reinvented as a solo performer, passed through the gauntlet of his years with Night Sweats. The collection finds him improved as a guitarist and light years more confident as a singer and lyricist. While the record likely won't achieve the popular acclaim of his party projects, it's certain that he's got the attention of many more ears than if he had remained a solo artist. And he's earned it.
- Jason Isbell & 400 Unit, "Be Afraid" Reunions (Southeastern, May 15) D
- Daniel Romano, "When I Learned Your Name" Modern Pressure (New West, 17)
- Honey Harper, "Something Relative" Starmaker (ATO, Mar 6) D
^ Nathaniel Rateliff, "Mavis" And It's Still Alright (Stax, 20)
- Nicole Atkins, "Captain" Italian Ice (Single Lock, Apr 17) D
- Jonathan Wilson, "Oh Girl" Dixie Blur (BMG, Mar 6)
- Mastersons, "Spellbound" No Time For Love Songs (New West, Mar 6)
- Panhandlers, "Cactus Flower" Panhandlers (Next Waltz, Mar 6)
- Matthew Logan Vasquez, "Halfcolt" Austin EP (MLV, 15)
- Esme Patterson, "All Mine" There Will Come Soft Rains (BMG, Mar 6)
- James Elkington, "Ever-Roving Eye" Ever-Roving Eye (Paradise of Bachelors, Apr 3)
- Tre Burt, "Only Sorrow Remains" Caught It From the Rye (Oh Boy, 20)
- Teddy Thompson, "Heartbreaker Please" Heartbreaker Please (Chalky Sounds, Mar 8) D
- Katy Moffatt, "I Just Keep Falling In Love" Chrysalis (Sunset Blvd, 20)
- Mapache, "Me Voy Pa'l Pueblo" From Liberty Street (Yep Roc, Mar 20)
- Gabe Lee, "Honky Tonk Hell" Honky Tonk Hell (Torrez, Mar 13) D
- Michigan Rattlers, "Desert Heat" single (Rattlers, 20) D
- James McMurtry, "South Dakota" Complicated Game (Complicated Game, 15)
- Aubrie Sellers, "My Love Will Not Change (feat. Steve Earle)" Far From Home (Soundly, 20)
- John Moreland, "A Thought Is Just a Passing Train" LP5 (Old Omens, 20)
- Swamp Dogg, "Good Better Best" Sorry You Couldn't Make It (Joyful Noise, Mar 6)
- Houndmouth, "Come On Illinois" From the Hills Below the City (Rough Trade, 13)
- Brandy Clark, "Love Is a Fire" Your Life Is a Record (Warner, Mar 6)
- Jessi Alexander, "I Should Probably Go Now" Decatur County Red (Lost Creek, Mar 27)
- Clem Snide, "Don't Bring No Ladder" Forever Just Beyond (Ramseur, Mar 27)
- Phosphorescent, "Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)" Here's To Taking It Easy (Dead Oceans, 10)
- Frazey Ford, "Money Can't Buy" U Kin B the Sun (Arts & Crafts, 20)
- Kim Richey, "Keep Me" Long Way Back: Songs Of Glimmer (Yep Roc, Mar 27)
- Grahams, "Searching the Milky Way" Kids Like Us (Three Sirens, Mar 27)
- Secret Sisters, "Late Bloomer" Saturn Return (New West, Feb 28)
Has it been a remarkable week for new releases, as seen on A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster? No. No it hasn't. But I'll trust just about anything Bloodshot Records stands behind. Their most recent signing is Chicago rock 'n roll band ROOKIE (in all caps, and on your shelves March 13). Early James is an Alabama singer whose influences span from folk to blues, as heard on his debut full-length, planned for March 13 on Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound label. Auerbach has also chosen to serve as the project's producer. It seems like just yesterday that Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real shared their last record. Nelson's keeping pace with his old man's record release schedule, unleashing Naked Garden via Fantasy Records on March 27. Illinois country rocker Craig Gerdes calls his April 13 CD, a documentary in album form. Tough As Nails follows 2018's Smokin' Drinkin' & Gamblin'. Single Lock Records will serve as the home for Nicole Atkins' promising Italian Ice, appearing wherever music matters in April 17. Atkins' seventh full-length features contributions from producer Ben Tanner, David Hood, Spooner Oldham and more. And by more, I mean this week's ROUTES-cast below: