Natalie Prass’ long goodbye
Matthew Munhall | Wednesday, January 28, 2015
“Our love is a long goodbye,” Natalie Prass sings over and over again towards the end of “My Baby Don’t Understand Me,” the stunning opening track of her self-titled debut album. This statement serves as the thesis not only for the eight tracks that follow — which chronicle the drawn-out end of a relationship — but for the album’s lengthy journey from inception to release.
Prass, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter, began writing these songs as early as 2009, and she finished recording the album back in February 2012. At the time, Spacebomb Records, her small independent label in Richmond, Virginia, was devoting all of its energy to promoting Matthew E. White’s album “Big Inner,” which meant the release of her album had to be delayed. During that period, Prass played keyboard in Jenny Lewis’ touring band, continued writing music and opened a clothing store for dogs (yes, really).
Three years later, Prass’ record has finally been released; it’s a self-assured debut full of breakup tracks that play out against a sunny sound. Produced by White and backed by Spacebomb’s house band, Prass’ songwriting is accented with horns and string sections that give the record a lush, full sound.
As a whole, “Natalie Prass” feels timeless, not sounding dated despite the three-year delay in its release. The album certainly draws inspiration from American music of the 1960s and 70s, cherrypicking sounds from country, soul, folk and jazz. Yet, Prass creates something more than mere pastiche. The album calls to mind the lush instrumentation of Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” or the blue-eyed soul of Dusty Springfield, just as much as it does the emotional honesty of Joanna Newsom or the melodic talent of Lewis. Prass expertly synthesizes all these influences, both past and present, into something distinctly her own.
A large amount of the album’s success lies in Prass’ beguiling voice. She sings with such control, her voice often rising no louder than a whisper, and the result is extremely effective. “What do you do when that happens / Where do you go when the only home that you know is with a stranger?” she asks on “My Baby Don’t Understand Me,” her voice pleading with vulnerability. On “Christy,” which plays like a modern take on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Prass pleads with the other woman not to steal her man. Her voice takes on a frail falsetto that mirrors her desperation.
Elsewhere, the bright “Bird of Prey,” is Prass at her most confident. It’s a kiss-off buoyed by jaunty piano chords and emotive flutes. “Oh you, you don’t leave me no choice / But to run away,” she sings on the infectious chorus, “You are a bird of prey.” It’s the rare glimpse of Prass as a heartbreaker, and it’s a welcome change of pace.
The album closes with “Is It You,” which sounds like a ballad off an early Disney soundtrack, with its swell of cinematic strings and fairytale lyrics. “And each day as my life goes on / It has all been a ruin without you,” Prass sings, juxtaposing the desperation of the lyrics again the song’s cheery sound. This blend of seemingly dissonant elements is at the heart of what makes this record so emotionally affecting.
“You think about all these different memories or places that you’ve played [this song] in the past, and think, Wow, I’m still here playing this one song,” Prass told Grantland last week. “We’re gonna go on this journey together, old song. Because my life has changed.”
These songs have already been through a journey stretching back almost a half-decade, and with the release of the album, they will continue to resonate in new ways with listeners. “Natalie Prass” may follow a long goodbye, but its release is an excellent introduction to Prass. It is a gorgeous debut that is at once both past and present, despondent and hopeful, embracing the messy contradiction that is life and love.