Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass (2015)

Hoo boy! I’m so close to being current that it’s embarrassing. If I could only be TRULY current… being a couple of months late just makes you look like you missed the bus.

Anyhoo, despite it’s early 2015 release date this album was recorded much earlier. The Spacebomb label sat it on for a while so that they could give Matthew E White’s record a maximum push. Prass kept herself busy playing in other peoples’ backing bands. On release her album got rave reviews all over the show.

It’s been hyped as a break up record. I kind of hope it isn’t because it’d be a lot of breaking up for one person to go through. Certainly it’s all about love gone wrong. With nine songs weighing at forty minutes it’s the length of an old “long player”. When you anticipate a significant percentage of sales being electronic then why fill up an entire CD? Say what there is to say and say no more.

Sonically it’s very similar to White’s album with the same producer, same house band, same arrangers and recorded in the same studio. It seems like there’s a Spacebomb sound and White’s vision of a sort of new Motown may well be coming true.

Not that it’s a copy. Prass’s songs and vocals are quite different despite getting a similar treatment. Her voice is almost little girlish at times – that’s what catches the ear early on. It’s recorded very dry (IE not a lot of reverb or other effects) and often very close and very intimately. The confessional effect is thus heightened on the first lines of the first song – like the listener is her therapist or best friend. It’s a great start to the record, luring the listener in.

The vocals are the weak point too. Whilst they are distinctive and give Prass a solid and distinct identity, the limitations are occasionally exposed as she pushes the top of her range too far – most obviously on the closing “It is You”. For the most part though the production emphasises her voice to good effect and on several tracks the emotion in the delivery is convincing (“My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, “Why Don’t You Believe Me”, “Christy” – which repeats Dolly Parton’s famous trick of directly addressing the other woman).

That album-ending track is all strings and horns, no rock band at all. With the complex string arrangement and harp fills it’s almost like something from a 50’s movie score (and when I say “harp” I mean an actual harp, not that thing that my Edinburgh-born wife calls a “moothie” and which lots of rockers refer to as a “harp”). It’s not the only song here that is orchestrated rather than having orchestral instruments on top of the song, but it is the most obvious and ornate example.

At other times the Spacebomb band delivers it’s signature southern soul groove with the help of excellent horn and string arrangements. And there’s never a solo in the sense that rock (or soul!) players would understand it. The spaces for a solo to fill are there, but instead of a guitar or a sax or a piano there’s a string section or horns or both playing as an ensemble. Given that the producer also plays all the guitar this is an interesting display of restraint. Clearly White’s interested in what the songs need rather than indulging himself. Good on him for that.

I enjoyed this record, though my own reactions didn’t match the rave reviews EG those in the Guardian (which reviewed it twice). Maybe I should have stayed away from the hype – and it is a problem these days. In the end the vocals wore me down a little on repeat listens, but overall it’s a fine record.

All been done before, of course, but more and more popular music is like that, and it’s the individual twists in the compositions and the delivery that make such a record work or not. And despite my reservations I have to say that overall this one works.

On a broader note, this record is more evidence that in this seemingly benighted age new artists can emerge, make albums that are not lowest common denominator pop, can make a more personal, deeper statement, can make the album they want to make; and that there are labels and producers interested in such music, critics who recognise it (I’m not talking about me) and an audience that finds it and buys it. Which is all a good thing.


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