Despite the rave reviews that Natalie Prass’ eponymous album has garnered for being the best sounding take on the classic vibe made famous by Dolly Parton and the like, it isn’t anything groundbreaking – and that’s the truth. She just doesn’t have the voice to take on some of the luxuriant songs that she’s written, and it feels that at some points the songs are carrying her, instead of the other way around – the way that it’s generally supposed to be.
You know that feeling when you’re driving a tiny car up a steep slope, and you’re pushing the pedal to the metal but vehicle is simply just too underpowered to be of much use – well, that’s how Prass’ opener ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’ feels like. There are sections where she coasts along rather smoothly, but at any sign of a rolling build, or when the aural mood becomes a denser environment, the strings just overpower her melodic lines.
She’s a songwriter’s songwriter, and a performer’s performer – her Youtube videos and other live recordings, as well as the structure and heartfelt lyrical content of her songs attest to that. Then why do her live recordings sound so much better than this debut that runs at two-thirds of an hour? It’s not just the first song, in case you’re wondering. She goes missing on ‘Birds of Prey’, almost as though she’s mumbling grumblings to herself. Not exactly the best beginning, in our opinion. A bright spot comes soon enough with ‘Christy’, one of the only two non-drum driven tunes on the entire album. It’s a heartbreaking saudade in which Prass’ emotions fill the entire song with a sombre, yet forgiving tint. ‘Why Don’t You Believe Me’ follows it as a rather pleasing pick-me-up; the kind of song that you’d listen to on a rainy Sunday afternoon, where Prass’ voice and tone contrasts beautifully with the rather pensive musical mood.
‘Violently’ is probably the oldest song on the entire record, with Prass having had it since her Berklee days. It’s no coincidence then, that this slow burner is the one that she sounds the most comfortable with, despite it being one of the most straight-up tunes of the collection. It’s a classic love story of longing, and it’s best told gently, in the soft, mellow way that Prass does best. What didn’t work in the album’s opener works here (and in ‘Never Over You’) very well, and Prass navigates these shallow waters better than she did in the deep end.
Closer ‘It Is You’ sounds like something pulled off a Broadway song-and-dance (just like with ‘Christy’) with a rolling percolation and minimal percussion, and this is where we feel Prass is at her best – her sweet fragile voice swiftly sashaying through the textural instrumentation. But it does come across as simply too little, too late – and it does beg the question of what could have been had she been a stronger vocalist. Ultimately, it’s a fantastically produced album, where Prass’ delicate vocals shine through for the most part with clarity across the exquisite string-and-horn sections, walking through her parts with a practised ease that not many others could probably nail. But despite how much we love the orchestral arrangements – it’s simply isn’t what works for Prass. Something a little bit more minimal or conventional where her voice could take centre stage would have done the trick, and done it much better. We know she has it in her – a unique voice, a top-notch musician. What more could she want? A better arrangement, to say the least. And maybe another label that wouldn’t hold off her record for four years.