At his recent London shows at The Shackelwell Arms and The Islington, Nathaniel Rateliff proved that all he needs is a single acoustic guitar and a stand and deliver attitude to hold an audience in rapt attention. His voice, his phrasing and his songs have a way of hitting the mark and where others can dazzle with a flurry of finger style, simple rhythmic strumming seems to be all that Nathaniel requires. It’s probably true to say that it’s how most of his songs take shape and they are simply being taken back to the moment of their birth. Listening to Falling Faster Than You Can Run, you can hear it there too and the album’s core is the same basic blend of guitar and voice. But that framework is taken to another level with subtle arrangements that add drama to Nathaniel’s philosophical and emotional vignettes.
His voice has that bruised quality to it, wracked and on the edge, but also captivating and ultimately beguiling. His decision to form a soul band, The Nightsweats, as a parallel project throws up the intriguing prospect of a Van Morrison style career trajectory, but with Nathaniel’s own blend of poetic introspection and rhythm and blues testifying. Having grown up with the rural Missouri church suggests a firm foundation and gospel roots. Still, it’s perhaps only natural that the lines between his soul persona and the singer songwriter of Falling Faster Than You Can Run are blurred. There’s a thrilling intensity to many of these songs and although perhaps by only a degree or two, Nathaniel’s voice is fuller and more nuanced that on his debut In Memory of Loss.
Equally that could just be the sound of an artist in development. His début had enough to catch the ears of the Denver cognoscenti and his immersion into the city’s music scene now appears complete, with local recognition translating into a solid fan-base. At the same time he got a considerable boost from Amazon.com and the New York Times and international acclaim has followed, with Nathaniel appearing on Later With Jools a couple of years ago on the strength of that debut album. His growing reputation has also seen him share a stage with two other of Denver’s most celebrated bands, The Lumineers and The Fray. A full US tour with the latter did much to firm up his national appeal Stateside, amongst the growing acclaim, while the former are amongst the vanguard of acts who have put high energy acoustic music back into the mainstream along with the UK’s Mumford & Sons.
Nathaniel has also gigged with other acts who fit that billing, such as Bon Iver, Mason Jennings, Ben Howard, Michael Kiwanuka, The Low Anthem, Laura Marling and Iron & Wine. His debut In Memory of Loss was produced by Brian Deck, who has notably produced Iron & Wine. This time it’s Nathaniel and Jamie Mefford at the controls, but there is something of the sense of space that Brian gave to that first record retained here. While it sounds simply, but well recorded, the first impressions are a little deceptive and repeated plays have a way of throwing up new details and hooks that make for a richly rewarding listen and keep you coming back for more.
The songs don’t necessarily follow a narrative flow as such, or certainly not in the way that say Springsteen does, nor or they laced with fervid poetry, but instead work around atmospheres, feelings and suggestions. Their meanings are very much down to personal interpretation, so not for this review to try and define. Suffice to say I have my own ideas, but much as the music seems to grow in stature with each repeated spin of the CD, those thoughts shift and change while the connection to the music as a whole remains the lasting embrace.
Still Trying opens the album with almost a whisper, the gentle strum of acoustic guitar a hint of heavily treated electric guitar and a sparse bass line. It builds through the second verse with a basic drumbeat, but when it suddenly falls away to Nathaniel’s impassioned, repeated howl of, “I don’t know,” with its eventual punch line of, “I don’t know a god damn thing,” the effect is almost devastating. The source of his anguish might not be entirely clear, but it’s a sentiment that I’m sure we have all felt at some point in our lives. As he tells us though, “And if you’re rolling in it long enough your shit won’t even smell.”
I Am starts in similarly sparse vein, the drums are even more minimal but the track reaches its conclusion propelled by a soaring melody and slashing electric guitar chords. Don’t Get Too Close has more of the rhythmic drive and snap of the Mumfords and Lumineers, but seems to broil with frustrations and doubts in lines like, “Wait, don’t come any closer. When you’re weak boy you bend at the knees.”
Laborman changes things with an electric guitar riff or two, but the same sense of space still exists and the same kinds of burdens also seem to bubble up. There’s an ominous tone as Nathaniel sings, “I’ve been mulling it around and kicking its teeth in the dirt. I’ve got a feeling, a sleeping depression that somebody’s gonna get hurt.”
When he played live he revealed that How To Win wasn’t actually a recipe for success. It does however drop us back into calmer waters and he manages to find an extra vocal gear or two, even slipping into falsetto as he wraps his voice around a gorgeous tune. Nothing To Show, raises the stakes and once again has that drive and a much fuller sound, with an organ swirling in the undertow. If you were going to pick a single from the album, this would probably be the track, which its crunching guitar finale, even if the climatic repeated refrain of “After all we’ve got nothing to show for,” isn’t the standard, radio friendly vapour.
Whether it’s simply because the artwork mirrors the vinyl version (and there is one apparently – yummy!), there’s a divide in the track listing and Right On marks the start of side two, with a laid back almost jazzy lilt. The subtle use of brass and a tune that wouldn’t be out of place on Abandoned Luncheonette, offer further evidence both of the potential merits of the parallel project and to expect some artistic too and fro between the two strands.
Three Fingers In, Forgetting Is Believing and When Do You See continue to ring the changes. The first is another gentle acoustic strum that suddenly builds to a climax on the back of some big piano chords. The second is something of a mournful indie-rocker, which offers the refrain of, “There’s always a distance between the shot and the whistle,” although it’s not clear who’s doing the shooting. The last of the trio is the most traditionally singer-songwriterly outing on the CD, based around an acoustic guitar lick and a pedal steel, as once again Nathaniel is bruised and battered as he sings, “My poor face is swollen I’m Losing sight.” It at least offers the hope of, “I don’t want to brag, but we made it out alive.”
The title track closes things with a sombre but ethereal introspective meditation. Although it suggests another gap between expectations and reality, the fall hasn’t reached terminal velocity as Nathaniel sings, “When I hit the ground, I’m going to laugh out loud and lay there a while and stare at the clouds.”
And so it would seem for all of its lugubrious airs, Falling Faster Than You Can Run finds Nathaniel still up for the fight. Sure some of these songs suggest bruises and scrapes, both real and metaphorical but Nathaniel will roll with the punches. When you see him he has a good humour and despite a robust physique a good grace. If he’s a little self deprecating, there’s also a twinkle in his eye making it a sure money bet that Nathaniel will have that last laugh.
Review by: Simon Holland
UK Release: 20 Jan 2014 via Mod y Vi Records
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UK Tour Dates
01/20 Belfast, McHughs Basement
01/21 Dublin, Ireland Academy 2
01/23 Leeds, Belgrave Music Hall
01/24 Liverpool, Leaf
01/25 Glasgow, Broadcast
01/26 Manchester, Soup Kitchen
01/28 London, Dingwalls
01/29 Brighton, Green Door Store
01/30 Cambridge, Portland Arms
01/31 Nottingham, Bodega
02/01 Bristol, Louisiana