Published on June 11th, 2018 | by voxx0
Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past
The Spacebomb singer’s righteous political funk and anti-Trump epics are brilliantly executed…
Though patience may not come naturally to her, the waiting game has served Natalie Prass well. She spent nine years on the periphery of the Nashville music scene, studying songwriting at nearby Middle Tennessee State University, scoring work as a session singer, and trying to realise her dream of making an album that fused Brill Building songwriting with a Motown/Stax sensibility.
She flunked out on that last aim, until she left Nashville and reconnected with old school-friend Matthew E White, then pursuing similarly pie-in-the-sky dreams of starting a label, assembling a fearsome house band and cutting his own records of idiosyncratic, anachronistic soul. Together, they recorded an album of Prass’s songs, an early White project by his nascent Spacebomb operation, produced on spec in the hope some record label might license it.
By the time Prass’s eponymous debut finally saw release in 2015 (following White’s own acclaimed breakthrough, Big Inner), it had spent three years gathering dust. While promoting the LP – a beguiling set that encompassed lissom Southern soul, cobwebby gothic country and one perfect sucker punch of lachrymose heartache, ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’ – Prass revealed she’d already penned two albums’ worth of new material while waiting for it to come out. Her concerts, meanwhile, saw her leaven the pre-digital ’70s soul swelter of the Spacebomb aesthetic with a cover of ‘Any Time, Any Place’, a seamy slow jam from Janet Jackson’s 1993 album, janet. – evidence of intriguing new influences Prass might add to the formula for the follow-up.
Prass was scheduled to record that second album in the summer of 2016, before her best-laid plans unravelled and the sessions were postponed, and then postponed again. She finally entered the studio that December, by which time a contentious American election – and the tumult of resultant misogyny – left Prass heartsick and sure that new material would no longer be timely. She junked all but one of those songs (‘Nothing To Say’), and visited White’s house every single day. “We would talk, and I would write,” Prass told Mojo Magazine recently. “And it helped me sort through my feelings. It was therapeutic for me; I desperately needed it.
This latest delay, which she now says “felt like fate”, turns out to be the making of The Future And The Past, a follow-up that strides decisively beyond the potentials sketched out by her debut. Engaging with our current dark epoch in a personal, ingenious way, it’s an album that’s cerebral and from the heart in the same moment, without any sense of contradiction.
That Janet Jackson cover was no red herring. The music here pushes the Spacebomb sound out of its lush, Willie Mitchell-derived cul-de-sac and connects with a more modernist muse: ‘Short Court Style’, ‘The Fire’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’ put that in-house group and their strings in the service of bristling funk and delirious soul, like Jam & Lewis productions given artisanal refits. The blissful ‘Never Too Late’ feels like it slipped off side two of Jackson’s Control, with its staccato keyboard stabs, its angelic trilling synthesizers, a middle eight that fell from heaven, and Prass haunting the upper registers. Her vocal melodies swoop and soar with the poise and gymnastic skill of an Ameriie, though only ever for sake of the song, never just for show.
The surface of The Future And The Past is impressive, then, but the substance is sublime, her lyrics sophisticated and skilful. ‘Far From You’ rewrites The Carpenters’ breakthrough hit to eulogise Karen, whose pristine soulfulness Prass often evokes (“Why do birds suddenly disappear/Instead of singing here?” is another of her devastating couplets). Elsewhere, Prass delivers hymns to persistence in the face of darkness, evading polemic in favour of the poetic, and all the more powerful for that.
‘Sisters’ is as explicit as the message gets, possessed of a righteous enough slink that it could be the work of Erykah Badu, a post-#MeToo anthem, the chorus calling to the “nasty women” (another Janet callback) to “keep your sisters close”, the verses taking aim at the gender pay gap, sexual harassment and domestic abuse.
‘Hot For The Mountain’ expands on the theme – with an infectious chorus of “We’ll take you on/We can take you all” – while widening the album’s musical canvas: eerie Eastern melodies, strings lifted from Kashmir, melting piano chords. It’s a dry run for the album’s true masterpiece, ‘Ship Go Down’, six-minutes of lopsided metre, jazzy exploration, and an orchestra rumbling like a distant storm. Prass’s vocals obey their own errant rhythms throughout, playful like vocalese but carrying her heaviest lyric on the album: part-elegy/part-warning of a disaster in progress, a nation sinking under its own folly, a “wolf in wolf’s clothing” at the helm. Its wild, bleakly beautiful psych-Tropicália climax evokes the darkest of raptures.
The track is masterful, recalling imperial-era Joni Mitchell (though more in the spirit of her ambition and ability, her refusal to be tethered to any songwriting orthodoxy, than sound), its bite anchoring the relative sweetness of the rest of the album. Indeed, in both modes (and in its sense of balance), The Future And The Past is a triumph, a coming-of-age that over-delivers on all Prass promised, and suggests limitless skies in answer to where she might go next. However long it takes, on this evidence it will be worth the wait.
- By Jake White