There aren’t many folk musicians with a voice as powerful as Nathaniel Rateliff’s. During quieter moments, the Denver-based singer-songwriter’s baritone channels the conversational yet vivid style of Bill Callahan and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner. But when he decides to showcase his room-filling pipes, those comparisons fall short. What happens as the decibels rise can really only be described as some sort of barbaric yawp, a passionate and cathartic yell that displays an exceptional range and stunning emotional resonance.
This mastery of dynamics has given him a fervent, albeit relatively small, following. It’s also in part because Rateliff has kept steadily busy over the last half-decade: first as Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel, then with two solo offerings (2010’s sublime In Memory of Loss and 2013’s Falling Faster Than You Can Run), and also with his soul pop collective Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, which will release a debut album this spring. His latest offering is the Closer EP, an understated six-song solo effort that works mostly to sum up his career so far.
Opener “Liverpool” begins with slowly strummed guitar chords and Rateliff cooing, “How was I to know it then?” When the line is punctuated by mood-setting harmonies, the gravity of his dilemma is better revealed. It’s these small moments, the turns of phrase, the meandering, reverb-laden guitar riffs, and the empty spaces that make these songs so rich. With “Laughter”, Rateliff boils this formula down to its simplest form. Without lyrics, the track is an exercise in coming to a crescendo, with the guitars becoming more and more frantic and the hums transforming into thundering yelps. It’s a pure example of how Rateliff can wrangle emotion out of wordless vocalization.
“Something Beautiful” is the closest the EP has to a lively jaunt, with its thumping piano and full-band composition highlighting Rateliff’s ability to seamlessly shift from pained to hopeful. As a storyteller, he has the immediacy of a dive-bar companion, dealing stories of heartbreak, hungover desperation, and dreams to get better. Thanks in part to the beefy harmonies and sullen campfire atmospherics, the earthy narratives of loss and being beaten (but not broken) in “Closer” and “Winded” practically jump out at you.
In a way, Closer serves as a sort of transitional piece for Rateliff, one that connects the sparse, acoustic side of his temperament to the charismatic, soulful showman. Soon he’ll unveil Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ debut, which will hopefully capture the outfit’s fiery and infectious live show. With the help of producer Richard Swift, who’s helped other folk artists like Damien Jurado expand and experiment, he may finally get his breakout year. After listening to this EP’s spellbinding sampler of melancholic folk songs, it’s obvious he deserves it.
Essential Tracks: “Liverpool”, “Something Beautiful”, and “Laughter”