The last few years have been an exercise in patience and perseverance for Natalie Prass. The Nashville/Richmond singer-songwriter has spent them working in a supporting role, waiting to finally take the spotlight. In 2012, she completed her self-titled debut album but had to shelve it due to the popularity of Matthew E. White’s excellent LP Big Inner, which more than tied up his label, Spacebomb Records. Since then, she’s spent her time opening a clothing store for dogs, recording and writing more songs, and joining the backing band of Jenny Lewis, one of her most cherished musical idols.
Now, Prass will finally and deservedly get the attention she could’ve earned three years ago if things had gone differently. One of the most fully realized and confident debuts in recent memory, Natalie Prass is an expertly sequenced and executed work that transforms decades of American music tradition into something relevant to the 21st century.
Recorded at White’s Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, the album was co-produced by White and Trey Pollard. Like all Spacebomb Records releases, it features the studio’s immensely talented house band. As a unit, these backing players assemble an orchestral sound that feels both expansive and expensive, with progressive, bold horn arrangements from White and string compositions from Pollard. With their help, Prass’s songs sound uniformly ornate, touching on signifiers of Stax Records and New Orleans soul.
Prass makes a perfect fit for Spacebomb Records, not just as someone who shares an understanding of America’s vibrant musical history, but also as White’s childhood friend and collaborator. They share a vision but have distinct ways of executing it. While Natalie Prass has more of a Dusty in Memphis sheen than Big Inner’s Randy Newman fascination, that retro sensibility still colors each of the album’s nine songs. Opener “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” boasts a one-two punch of boisterous big band backing combined with the album’s most memorable line: “Our love is a long goodbye.” Lead single “Bird of Prey” is one of the more straightforward pop songs on the LP, with a bouncy piano riff courtesy of Daniel Clarke (Ryan Adams, k.d. Lang). “Never Over You” is the most distinctly Southern offering here, featuring a triumphantly rollicking piano and a slight but atmospheric pedal steel, along with gospel-tinged backing vocals and gorgeous strings.
Despite the band’s amazing instrumental flourishes, it’s Prass who makes the album spectacular. Her simultaneously commanding and delicate voice manages to be soulful without forced affectation, ethereal without being too sweet. On “Christy”, her soprano sounds defeated and biting as she sings lines like “It’s so wrong, I’ll still be here for him when all your love is gone” and “His dreams aren’t the only ones that you haunt.”
This is ostensibly a breakup album, one that explores toxic relationships and unrequited love with as much brutal honesty and grace as Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen. Those artists, however, conveyed their pain through powerhouse vocal performances full of high notes, chilling vibrato, and primal yells. Prass’s approach is more subtle but just as effective. During highlight “Violently”, which closely parallels Van Etten’s “Your Love Is Killing Me”, Prass sings, “Break my legs ’cause they want to walk to you/ I just want to know you violently.” Her delivery is almost a whisper, a strikingly convincing line for someone dealing with overwhelming pain.
On closer “It Is You”, the lush orchestration and Prass’s pure, unadulterated voice sound like a Broadway number or a time capsule from a simpler era. It’s Harry Nilsson-inspired melancholic pop bliss, and as the strings lilt along with her voice, it makes for a perfect cap to the LP. When she sings, “So many things will fill my life/ But only one will do/ It is you, it is you, it is you,” she beautifully and tragically sums up the album as a whole.
Natalie Prass resonates in part because of its familiarity, the touchstones of lost genres and the nostalgic reserves of American music. This is music inspired by what you remember hearing as a kid from your parents’ and grandparents’ record collections, but it’s been made fresh and totally original again. It’s wholly approachable, with plenty of sublime moments, namely the stunning horn section on “Reprise” and the way Prass’s voice glides through “Violently”. More importantly, it’s also a cathartic, earnest, and empathetic record. Its emotional honesty serves as warm comfort for the heartbroken and dejected.
Essential Tracks: “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, “Violently”, and “Reprise”