Natalie Prass’ Fabulous New Album Defies Categorization

12 Mar

Most of the albums I review for this blog can be ranked by orders of excellence. For example, I have raved about how Husky’s Ruckers Hill is a phenomenal indie folk-rock album, or how the Corner Laughers consistently represent the best in indie pop-rock.

But every once in a while, an artist stands out not because he or she is the best within a particular genre, but because that artist has broken the mold and gone beyond the constructions of modern genres — creating something that’s difficult to measure by any established scale.

Natalie Prass’ new self-titled release is one such album. The 29-year-old Nashville singer-songwriter has released an indie rock album that blurs the line between rock and blue-eyed soul, with some jazz and a dash of Disney magic thrown in on occasion.

Prass grew up in Virginia and studied at the Berklee College of Music for a year before joining Jenny Lewis as a keyboardist and backing vocalist. While still in Richmond, Virginia, she connected with her high school friend, Matthew E. White, and his label Spacebomb Records. This friendship served her well when she was ready to produce her debut album, Natalie Prass.

The album exhibits Prass’ stunning artistry, marked by a style that reflects an homage to the past, updated for today. Her delivery is skillful and soulful, revealing great emotional range on her vocals, complemented by her exceptional songwriting skills. The only drawback is that her vocals tend to fall off at the end of lines, making difficult to understand some of them without a lyric sheet.

Part of the reason for that is because Prass is backed on Natalie Prass by 30-plus musicians who play horns or strings for Spacebomb’s house band. “Really — house musicians?” you may say. That’s another old-fashioned concept that most thought died with the demise of Motown or the Stax label. But Spacebomb has revived this to good purpose.

The album opens with a slow, soft and delicate song, “My Baby Don’t Understand Me.” Prass’ vocals are sweet and soulful, made richer by the full orchestration of the Spacebomb band.

The next track, “Bird of Prey,” is fabulous — the most radio-friendly song on the CD. It’s funky and soulful — with a playful, bouncy melody and Prass’ wafer-thin, yet so expressive vocals wafting above. The Spacebomb horns perfectly punctuate the piece.

That is followed by a soulful doo-wop number in ¾ time — a throwback to the 1960s when artists ranging from the Supremes to Dusty Springfield produced great pop standards.

“Violently” demonstrates what an amazing songwriting talent Prass is. According the online publication, Pitchfork, this song was written while Prass was still in college. In the song, her lilting vocals work perfectly with the big band arrangement as she tells a lost love, “And I’ll break my legs/’Cause they want to walk to you” and later, “And I’ll break my arms/’Cause they want to hold you.”

The final track on the CD is “It Is You,” and this is where the Disney magic has been sprinkled. Not literally, of course. But if you didn’t know better, you’d guess that Prass is covering a song from some Disney animated feature film. She even sounds like she could be a bluebird trilling the high notes as the woodwinds do the same in the background.

If you’re put off by music that’s different and hard to categorize, you may want to listen to this on a “Throwback Thursday” when it’s okay to enjoy things from the past. If that’s what it takes to open your ears to this extraordinary artist, I’m okay with it. Because Natalie Prass is likely to be among the best indie albums of 2015.

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