When Bjork recently spoke about the tendency to credit men with the genius of a woman’s art, she could have been looking straight at critics about to write about the fantastic debut album from Natalie Prass. Over nine songs, Prass shows a range in songwriting, from anthems to confident R&B burners to whimsical prairie folk to theatrical grandeur. It is the debut of a songwriter not struggling to find a voice, but fully formed and confident as all hell. She makes knowing nods to Joni Mitchell, Lesley Gore, Diana Ross and Joanna Newsom, all while seeming natural and instinctual. She is the product of her influences and still original.
But a reading of the press release for Natalie Prass’ self-titled debut album presents Prass as less the driving force and more a cog in the machine that is Spacebomb, the label that is putting out the release. If you were to believe how the album has been presented, the record is the output of a community: Trey Pollard’s string arrangements, Matthew E. White’s horns, and the rhythm section of Cameron Ralston and Pinson Chanselle.
And the production of Natalie Prass is a standout—beautiful quite often. Oftentimes, Prass’ voice is mixed at an equal volume with the backing music, focusing equal attention on the swelling orchestra during the peak of “Violently” or letting her duke it out with the coming and going of her backing players on one of the year’s very best songs, “My Baby Don’t Understand Me.” In a recent interview, Prass praised White and Pollard for working independently of each other and managing to come to the project with parts that complemented each other. “Those guys are just geniuses,” she said. “They exceeded my expectations beyond anything I ever imagined.”
But while the Spacebomb team carried their weight on the endeavor, Natalie Prass is ultimately the songwriter’s own battle to win or lose, and more often she does the former. The one exception is glaring, the penultimate spoken-word track “Reprise,” which tries its hand at a very traditional form and winds up flat and forced. More successful risks are her harp-infused fairy dance “Christy,” the Disney-eque “It Is You,” and her most muscular song, “Bird of Prey.” These all stray from what the album’s primary sound seems to be, and in a complementary way. They are tastes of what Prass can do, and while we might not want to hear more of any particular sound, we’re glad to see Prass pushing herself.
And when Prass is in her biggest comfort zone, the results are astounding. The heartbroken revelations of “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” and “Your Fool” are sung with the kind of conviction that produces empathetic responses in listeners. And that’s the lasting effect of the album. After just a nine-song introduction, we care about Natalie Prass. The rewards of the accomplishment are all hers to reap.