The first things you notice are the voice and the space. That voice belongs to NATHANIEL RATELIFF, a man whoâ€™s earned the twang and hard-knock weariness that shines through on his Rounder debut. The space comes courtesy of producer Brian Deck (Califone, Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse), who helped transform 8-track bedroom demos into miniature epics of contrast, beauty, and yearning. In Memory of Loss is a stunning, heartbreaking sonic document from a singer-songwriter whoâ€™s made his way from a childhood in Bay, Missouri (pop. 60) to the national stage.
Rateliff grew up of modest means, the son of devout Southern churchgoers. The family sang together throughout his childhood. At age 7 Rateliff learned the drums. As a teenager, he stumbled across a cassette of Led Zeppelinâ€™s IV abandoned in a local barn; he wore the tape out listening to it on headphones, drumming along with â€œWhen the Levee Breaksâ€ and â€œMisty Mountain Hop.â€
At eighteen Rateliff relocated to Denver. He scored a job with a trucking company, working on the dock and the yard. The money was good, but Rateliff kept falling asleep at the wheel. â€œI had a little stint of narcolepsy,â€ he says. â€œMy limbs were going numb, the color was all weird in â€˜em. My thyroid wasnâ€™t working. Weird stuff that shouldnâ€™t be happening when youâ€™re in your 20s, but it was.â€ After a battery of tests Rateliff decided to take time off from the job. It was a period of rest and recovery, but also one of artistic growth and fresh challenges. Rateliff used the break to learn the piano, much as he had other instrumentsâ€”by teaching himself. The first song he tackled was Leonard Cohenâ€™s melancholy classic, â€œHallelujah.â€ (That same mixture of the sacred and profane is recognizable on â€œWe Never Win,â€ with its throwbacks to gospel vocal harmonies, Rateliff harkening to â€œan old time revival.â€)
Meanwhile, Rateliff developed a dedicated following within the Denver music community and beyond. Spin praised his â€œmassive, alluringâ€ voice. Billboard dubbed the unsigned singer-songwriter a â€˜must hear.â€™ This wave of acclaim lead to a live set on the popular indie site Daytrotter and a solo tour opening for the Fray. The New York Times praised Rateliffâ€™s â€œstark, eloquent [Johnny] Cash echoes,â€ and he earned enthusiastic mentions from Time Out New York and the tastemaker music blog, Brooklyn Vegan. New York magazine pegged Rateliff as an â€œartist everyone should be listening toâ€ during the pivotal CMJ Music Festival.
While recording In Memory of Loss, Rateliff lived in Chicago, working with producer Brian Deck to craft the nuances: mournful harmonica on â€œYou Shouldâ€™ve Seen the Other Guy,â€ the ominous organ of â€œLonging and Losing,â€ propulsive bass drum on â€œEarly Spring Till.â€ Rateliffâ€™s Rounder debut is rooted in a bygone era. Itâ€™s both fresh and classic, imbued with a melancholy nostalgia, the rough candor of rockâ€™nâ€™rollâ€™s past and the warmth and earnestness of folk storytellers. Rateliff has a personal connection to the sounds of the 60s and 70s. â€œIt was more about songs, and not about an industry,â€ he says. â€œIt was about a movement, not about making money. I think weâ€™re moving back into that again. Thereâ€™s still an importance in actually writing songs again. People are interested in hearing things that make sense.â€
These thirteen tracks, with their soulful minimalism, certainly make sense. Hints of the music he grew up on â€“ Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, the Beatlesâ€”shine through. (Album closer â€œHappy Just To Be,â€ with its pounding piano chords, is a close cousin to the Lennon-penned â€œAcross the Universe.â€) Yet Rateliff is also at home in what may be called, for lack of a better term, the neo-folk revival. His voice is so confident that you can occasionally imagine the music dropping out entirely, a song propelled solely by Rateliffâ€™s acapella strengthsâ€”equal parts church spiritual and TV on the Radio riffing on the Pixiesâ€™ â€œMr. Grieves.â€
In Memory of Loss hits stores on April 27th