THE FUTURE AND THE PAST by Natalie Prass
Genre: Contemporary R&B
Favorite Tracks: “Hot For the Mountain,” “Ship Go Down,” “Short Court Style”
Nashville singer/songwriter Natalie Prass’ 2015 self-titled debut made the world rejoice in its formal introduction to a surefire talent. Prass exuded a poise wrought from a comprehensive music education outside a highly competitive musical city, and it delighted the senses. Some of the whimsy and delicate, soothing melodies Prass created were akin to a few of the Beatles’ more memorable moments. Her voice was a welcomed, honey-like antidote good for any ailment.
On her sophomore LP, THE FUTURE AND THE PAST, Prass takes a brave plunge toward a new sonic landscape. Most of the baroque, chamber pop exoskeleton of her debut is shed for a new, essentially R&B casing. NATALIE PRASS carried some bass with it (“Bird of Prey,” “Your Fool”) but not to the same effect as this release. Prass sounds closer to Anderson .Paak or The Internet than former band mate Jenny Lewis. There’s almost a Sam Smith quality to some of the tracks too. Before her debut, her 2014 single “Any Time, Any Place” illustrated what that retro-glazed sensibility could do for her voice and ability, and those features are in full force here. Whether or not this departure truly shows off Prass’ skills as a songwriter the way her debut did is up for debate, but there’s an undeniable catchiness to some of the songs, and a few that readily expose her deeply talented core.
The long, drawn-out process that is an album release these days had Prass’ new label ATO Records (Alabama Shakes, Chicano Batman, Jim James, My Morning Jacket) release “Short Court Style” in February with “Lost” and “Sisters” soon to follow. “Short Court Style” served as a savory first taste of the ear worms THE FUTURE AND THE PAST had in tow, but apart from “Sisters,” the pre-released singles were not the three best choices to represent the deeper context of the record.
The latest in the wave of albums inspired by the 2016 US presidential election, THE FUTURE AND THE PAST, like last year’s Gorillaz release HUMANZ, juxtaposes occasionally airy and all-together lighthearted rhythms with biting and engaged lyrics. “Ship Go Down” is arguably the best track on the album. The deliberate pace uplifts Prass’ voice, which is at its most dynamic on this track. It ends with an utterly satisfying and drawn-out jam that features Prass evoking Robert Plant-esque yelps, “ooo’s,” and “aaah’s.” Though feigning reticence, the ship going down is almost certainly the U.S., and take a guess who “the wolf in wolf’s clothing” is. Songs like “Lost,” and “Never Too Late,” while divergent on that theme, still work, and it’s unclear whether or not “Short Court Style” is a more nuanced metaphor or about a regular romantic relationship.
“Hot For the Mountain” shows the depths of Prass’ songwriting, and perhaps fittingly sounds the most like her previous music, with its pressing and purposeful strings accompaniment. “Let us raise a glass to the future and the past,” she calls out, perhaps in direct reference to some of the older sounds that come through on nearly every track: “Keep on shaking it till we break it.” Prass lays these velvety lyrics over the song’s chorus, which like “Ship Go Down” and much of the rest of the album, acknowledges a perceived inevitable power shift.
THE FUTURE AND THE PAST is not perfect, and at times is slightly forgettable, or at the least slightly too familiar. “The Fire,” which harkens back to a late ‘80s early ‘90s structure, is a song with lots of potential, but disappoints lyrically and musically by the chorus. “Lost” similarly leaves me wanting a little more, and “Nothing to Say,” like the previous two songs I mentioned, sticks out in tone, interrupting an otherwise very solid flow. “Far From You” pleasantly puts Prass’ voice at its center, but after a few listens isn’t all that memorable either. There’s this sense now that the room is a little bigger, and I’m not sure if that works in Prass’ favor or not. I don’t think any of the songs would work in a setting like this intimate SXSW performance from a few years ago.
It’s possible that a lot of what made Prass’ debut more memorable was the change from Spacebomb to ATO Records. Prass had gushed to Pitchfork about the “incredible house band” at Spacebomb Studios, and praised the “shared vision” of her producers there. Prass’ actual contribution to the music is obviously still the most important part of her records, and THE FUTURE AND THE PAST still does a good enough job putting her talents in the limelight. While it has its forgettable moments, there are several great tracks that will keep you coming back for a while. At the very least, THE FUTURE AND THE PAST has me excited for Natalie Prass’ next effort, and “Oh My,” “Ship Go Down,” and “Short Court Style” are certified excellent-sounding in a car. Take what you will from Prass’ latest and bump it on your summertime car rides.