Nathaniel Rateliff: In Memory of Loss (Rounder)

Nathaniel Rateliff, a singer-songwriter from Missouri by way of Colorado, bridges the stylistic gap between Tin Pan Alley and contemporary folk-rock.

Most of the intense, personal songs on his appealing solo debut—which alternate between whimsy and melancholia—stick to austere acoustic arrangements, such as the fiddle, guitar and piano on soothing opening track "Once in a Great While." The chill-inducing "Oil and Lavender" uses just his vibrant voice, some guitar tickles and tiny splashes of piano.

Tracks such as the beautiful and stark "Longing and Losing" and the me-against-the-world manifesto "You Should've Seen the Other Guy" trade in the sort of scary intimacy that will remind some listeners of Leonard Cohen's early work. Rateliff also has the disarming tendency to simply end songs when he runs out of words, which actually becomes refreshing. For Rateliff, there's no such thing as filler: His songs are lean and sinewy, flexing complicated emotions even when at rest.

But Rateliff's not only a minimalist folkie. He creates dynamics that go from hushed to strident and then back again, such as on "Early Spring Till," on which he builds gorgeous multi-tracked harmonies from his own voice. Some of the tunes here also use a nuanced rhythm section to punch up the proceedings. "Whimper and Wail" and "A Lamb on the Stone" both work up a convincing rock 'n' roll froth.

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