Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Self Titled – 2015

Rateliff

My introduction to Nathaniel Rateliff was the 2012 Revival Tour; I’d gone to see Cory Branan and Chuck Ragan, but the rest of the audience was there to see Laura Jane Grace (then Tom Gabel) and an impromptu Alkaline Trio reunion. I hadn’t expected Rateliff. Instead of a shouting folk set or a swaggering punk one, he was muted and measured. Rateliff’s restraint was palpable, only letting us in on his true voice during the stellar “Whimper And Wail”. The rest of the crowd seemed restless, but I was hooked. The only record he had for sale was his first, 2007’s Desire & Dissolving Men, and it’s been an early morning/late night stalwart for me ever since. Just as with his live performance it seemed like Rateliff was baring his soul, but carefully, excruciatingly. He was more likely to whisper as to yell, and his sound was equally restrained.

All of that went right straight to hell and back when he wrote the songs on Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. The record opens with the energetic “I Need Never Get Old” and the toetappers don’t stop until the last notes of the supremely appropriately titled closing track, “Mellow Out”. Rateliff is now signed to Stax records, and took up the mantle of that label with gusto. His band features an organ, a horn section, and a bass line powerful enough to move your hips of its own accord. Every one of these songs is undeniably soul and undeniably Rateliff. His pace hasn’t changed, his overlayed vocals haven’t changed, the emotional intensity of his lyrics haven’t changed…he just has a bigger band and a hell of a lot more fun.

In the second track, “Howling At Nothing”, a pleading shuffle featuring an errant guitar, Rateliff pleads:  “So let me in, or let me down!” Many songs on the record are similar entreaties to a lover, past or present. It overflows with eloquent phrasing, some of which is deeply gut-wrenching, and it does so over an eminently dance-able beat. This record is what happens when heartbreak grows sick of navel gazing and decides to cry out to the heavens while shaking its hips. “Mean what you said, and mean it to me,” he says

The centerpiece and standout track of the record is undoubtedly “S.O.B.”, which Rateliff and his band played recently on The Late Show to critical acclaim. It bears the hallmarks of modern Americana popularity: call and response, clapping, and swearing. Keeping the song in the real world, in addition to the undeniably catchy tune, is Rateliff’s lyrical ability. Unlike other anthems of debauchery, “S.O.B.” is about begging someone to help you get clean…and about how hard sobriety is to find and keep. Unlike other stars playing world-weary songs of sin on late night TV, you get the impression that Ratelliff has seen some shit.

I’ve got to admit that the Late Show appearance is hard for me to swallow. I think we’ve hit peak beard-hat-denim in American pop culture, and if I had seen Rateliff play without knowing his work I might have written him off as another manufactured cash grab. Success shouldn’t be held against the successful, however, and Rateliff is the real deal. This self-titled record is fun to listen to, it sounds like Rateliff is having fun playing it, and I’ll take tortured joy over tortured agony any day.

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is Essential Listening.

You can buy the record from their website, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

John Moreland – High On Tulsa Heat – 2015

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Inside John Moreland’s High On Tulsa Heat he writes “This is a record about home. Whatever that is.” and if he had written a similar inscription for 2013’s In The Throes I believe it would have said “This is a record about faith. Whatever that is.” and that is the only comparison I plan to make of those two records in this review. Gone are most of the biblical and religious references and undertones, here they are replaced with elements from the natural world and of people. The ache is there, hung both in Moreland’s voice and in his subtle guitar playing, but so is the beauty.

I’ve been accused of writing too intellectually about music on several occasions and I understand where that criticism comes from. I believe that Moreland’s songwriting belongs in the conversations about the highest examples of the art form and that his craftsmanship and selection of detail have his work on the way to being regarded with masters with names like Van Zandt and Kristofferson. Work like he’s creating is worthy of being written about in intellectual terms and I hope I’m the person to write that story when the time comes. But today I just want to talk about why these songs matter.

I’ve known sadness in the past and know I’ll be visited by it again someday. Chances are that if you’ve latched on to Moreland’s music in the last few years that sadness has also been a companion in your life. The beauty that Moreland is able to express through his saddest songs is the idea that we aren’t alone in these moments. The songs, Moreland’s and the other greats, are there even when we don’t need them just to remind us that they will be when our midnights are too dark to handle.

The longing jumps out of the speakers in the opening “Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars” and it’s clear that Moreland has truly found his voice as a writer. He gets to the point quickly with the line “My heart is growing heavy from the ever endless hurt” and later “make you homesick for a home you never had/ burning out the good with all the bad.” But an important shift happens when it becomes clear that the song is really about being there for someone else in their trying time not about dwelling on yourself. There are many lines in the second half of the song that talk about being there, being there for that one other person that matters most. I don’t understand every lyric but I want to keep listening while I hope the meaning presents itself. There’s hope in “Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars,” you have to listen for it but when you hear it you can feel what I like to call Moreland Beauty.

Following on the heels of such a weighty opener, Moreland eases up a bit with “Heart’s Too Heavy.” A full band song that’s catchy as hell, “Heart’s Too Heavy” proves that Moreland isn’t stuck making a follow up and is willing to balance the power his songs wield on both electric and acoustic guitars.

As with any Moreland album there’s line after line in song after song that warrants a mention in a review but there are just too many here and I’m trying my best to not be an intellectual. Instead, I think it’s important to mention the vulnerability expressed in these ten songs. Though probably frightening and nerve-racking to write and perform, the vulnerability most likely leads to a sense of power for Moreland and gives us listeners a sense of calm. Along with the craftsmanship, the vulnerability is what draws people so intensely to Moreland’s songs. You don’t have to try to explain things to yourself when Moreland has already expressed it for you.

By the time the album reaches the landmark “You Don’t Care For Me Enough To Cry,” the balance of band and solo songs on High On Tulsa Heat allows for casual and intense listening. But “You Don’t Care For Me Enough To Cry” is the type of song that demands full attention. Every element of High On Tulsa Heat and John Moreland as a songwriter is wrapped up in four minutes and fourteen seconds. There’s the natural world, longing for home and someone else. There’s the admission of mistakes made and a willingness to try to be better for the sake of someone else. There’s hope and despair in the same breath with equal parts self-loathing and frankness about limitations. Even if this was the only song on High On Tulsa Heat the album would be ESSENTIAL LISTENING but there truly are ten exceptional songs here.

As I was listening and thinking about writing this review a quote from one of my favorite fiction writers got stuck in my mind. Harry Crews writes some of the most brutal fiction I’ve ever read. He puts his character’s vulnerability on full display and at the same time shows us our own. It’s a quote that I carried in my wallet for years and I think it helps explain what it’s like to be a writer and why people respond so passionately to Moreland’s music. He seems to do it to himself in song so we don’t have to.

You continually pick at yourself, the little sores that you have. They scab over and you pick them open again. Other people not only let them scab over, they let them scar over. They leave it alone. Writers don’t do that. They can’t keep their fingers out of the sore. They’ve got to keep it bleeding. And it’s off that blood that they make their stuff.”

Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars

Heart’s Too Heavy

You Don’t Care For Me Enough to Cry

Official Site, On Facebook, Buy High On Tulsa Heat

BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY – SINGER'S GRAVE A SEA OF TONGUES

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So I’ve been practicing my Dirk Gently-esque method of finding new music in this futuristic year of 2015, and I bring you something forth. I was out at breakfast, and when I came back to my car someone had parked in front of me. It was a Toyota Yaris with one window busted out (fixed with black plastic and duct tape) and plenty of bumper stickers. One bumper sticker in particular caught my eye: “Fuck the birds in the bushes”, it proclaimed. I got out of my car and looked at the fine print to see who or what this amazing statement could have come from.

Well here. It came from this.

I suppose Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is a name I should know, one amongst many. I was able to glean something of Billy (actually Will Holdham)’s life story from other reviews, but that doesn’t matter to me. It also doesn’t matter that this record is primarily re-engineered versions of songs from a previous record. For those of us in the small time, the journey and the destination get to be the same thing.

A Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues is a slow record, full of soft lows that build to towering highs. Oldham’s voice is at once rough and lilting, the sort of honest folk sound countless record labels are trying to capture like Dr. Claw. There are plenty of country elements to the album; the opening track, “Night Noises”, eases the listener in with steady banjo picking and the melodic voice of pedal steel. “Night noises are my noises,” Oldham sings, “And soiled doves are my birds”. This is definitely a Ninebullets record.

There’s a life to the songs, carried by one of the deftly wielded accoutrements of the record: the aforementioned pedal steel, a thrumming electric guitar, a haunting fiddle, or (most notably) the gospel sound of the McCrary  sisters. Any or all of these can take a song from soft and dark to blaring in triumph and right back again, and sometimes do. The quote from the bumper sticker is from the track “Quail and Dumplings”, which starts out as a forlorn plea and lamenting of one’s present circumstances before building in both lyrical content and soulful sound to an embrace of life as it is, and not as you had once hoped it would be. Many of these songs walk similar lines, turning their subject matter on its head even as the music evolves around it. Another pleasant change of perspective was in the song “Whipped”, a story of a man who’s found love and no longer raises hell with the boys. “Lion tamer, pride life re-framer/That warm pot of gold always waiting, fear abating, to welcome me home/From the cold” he sings, the McCrary sisters beginning to raise their voices behind him, an ode to a facet of love so often looked at from the other side of the gender gap.

A Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues is a record you have to chew on, but it’s worth the mastication. Oldham’s odes to the common man who happens to find himself a very uncommon man will grow on you, and the weaving of traditional folk and gospel sounds will scratch an itch you didn’t know you had.

As far as I can tell, there’s no official Facebook or Twitter pages for Oldham or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, so I can’t link to those. But his website is over here, and here is where you can buy the record.

Night Noises
Quail and Dumplings
We Are Unhappy

 

GREGORY MCKILLOP – LITTLE DEMON ON THE BACK SEAT

Gregory McKillop - Little Demon On The Back Seat - coverWelcome to 2015, folks: meet the New Year, same as the Old Year. But even though the calendar which binds and contains us was installed by Pope Gregory XIII to make sure that Easter stays on the Spring Equinox (the better to celebrate with you my dear), it doesn’t mean we have to throw away the transformative features of feeling like you are in The Future…or at least The Present.

This year I wanted to dedicate myself to finding new music. Choosing records made by artists that have been drunk with your favorite bands is appealing for a while, but doesn’t have any legs. Spotify’s “New Release” playlists are a complete joke; the service doesn’t allow you to just see any kind of list of all newly added records. For my search I turned to that old standby: Bandcamp. I clicked the ‘Discover‘ button right on the top of their website, then ‘Folk’ and ‘New Arrivals’. A record cover caught my eye and when I clicked it, it started playing.

It turned out to be an excellent way to choose an album.

Gregory McKillop was the front man of the band Speaker For The Dead for years, and it transformed from himself and a guitar into a wandering home for musicians of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and instruments. He left it amicably to go solo again, and released Little Demon On The Back Seat on the potent date of December 31st, 2014. It’s the perfect kind of record for the end of one year and beginning of another: introspective, irreverent, and in the artist’s own words, “heavy”. I guess if you had to apply a genre ‘folk’ wouldn’t be too far off, but it wouldn’t hit the mark either. McKillop’s voice vacillates between a keening pop-punk sound, a fast almost spoken tempo, and clear ringing tones. The songs alternate between different traditions and tropes, with any hardly staying in the same time the whole way through. This record is an artist attempting to represent himself completely, in both lyrical and musical content, rather than stay married to one style.

This is an album dedicated to the idea of maturity, and the realization that even if you aren’t a kid any more you’re never done growing up. It’s part cautionary tale, part call to arms, and part diary. McKillop is dissecting himself over 15 tracks, and it causes us to think about ourselves. The prologue “The Fool” (one of many references to Tarot over the course of the record) says it explicitly: ‘This is not a song/About how I have no regrets”.

Little Demon On The Back Seat is a sprawling record, as heartwarming and fun as it can be harsh and heavy, with the resignedly optimistic “Bitter Punk” on one end of the spectrum and the four-part saga of “The Hanged Man” on the other. A note about McKillop’s music, evident especially in the song “This Is What Self Defense Looks Like” below: this is an album by a gay artist. That doesn’t make it a ‘gay’ record, doesn’t put it into any box or take it out of any other box. The beauty of sad bastard songs lies in empathy, ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. If a love song written by a man about a man affects your opinion of the song, maybe you need to check in on your understanding of love.

Though McKillop’s experiences are different from our own, the music he’s written about them touch the same parts of our own hearts and minds. This record is Micah Schnabel’s I’m Dead, Serious from the other side of a mirror. There’s the feeling of necessary self-immolation, of a catharsis that comes through slow trudging work rather than one brilliant moment of inspiration. McKillop has been a touring artist for a long time and plenty of his musings involve playing music, including my favorite turn of phrase on the record:

‘Whether you’re flying free as a bird,
or if you’ve been trapped inside that same old
god damn burg: a town they dared to call a city.
Well my friend: there is magic on the road,
and there is magic should you choose to stay at home.
That’s why they rhyme’

I reached out to Gregory and asked him some questions about his music and music culture, and he was kind enough to get back to me. I’m going to collect my thoughts and post more about that later, but give you a hint: this is an artist who has a lot to say, and Little Demon On The Back Seat is a wonderful example of that.

Check out his record over on Bandcamp, and like his Facebook page.

 

00. The Fool: Maps On Depressional Magick

03. Barbed Wire Song

05. This Is What Self Defense Looks Like