Monday, June 25, 2018

album review: 'the future and the past' by natalie prass

So I remember a few years back I described a certain brand of indie pop and folk that I tended not to like, that I and other critics have branded as 'twee'... and in retrospect, I think my opinions have evolved on this subject. Because give the aesthetic style even a bit more thought and you'd think that parts of it would be right up my alley: earnestness, a songwriterly attention to detail, organic texture that rewards patience and nuance in the listener, you'd think this would resonate...

And in truth that's all probably true, so maybe 'twee' is the wrong designation... but I also can't deny that there's a certain delicate, overly arranged and yet very accessible, borderline 'basic' aesthetic that doesn't resonate as strongly if that core of strength doesn't come through. And for a prime example of this, let's talk about Natalie Prass, an indie pop singer-songwriter most recognizable for her thin, fluttery vocal delivery and very polished, borderline baroque pop arrangements who won buckets of critical acclaim for her self-titled debut in 2015. And yeah, I can see the quality: she's a wry and clever songwriter, the arrangements are certainly lush and pretty with their strings and horns, and there's a theatricality to her presentation I can usually appreciate... but it just never gripped me more deeply, a record I can appreciate more than actually enjoy. And thus I was wary when I saw her follow-up show up on my schedule, but I was certainly intrigued by the buzz - reportedly that core of strength had finally materialized, along with her taking a stridently political direction after having to junk an entire record of songs that she felt just didn't fit with the current climate. And while this album hasn't quite been getting the rave reviews of her debut, I thought there was a chance this album could click for me more than her last, so how is The Future And The Past?

So here's the thing: I'd definitely say this project is better than her debut - the compositions are more diverse, there's more thrumming groove and foundation which for someone with Natalie Prass' vocal register is only a good thing, and you can tell even she is delivering a more impassioned, strident performance, showing signs of a stronger singer outside of the borderline baby-voiced cooing. And yet... I still feel distant from this sort of singer-songwriter material - not that it's bad, I can certainly appreciate the quality, but as a whole I'm just underwhelmed, the sort of 'resistance' record that might have its meditative place but little of the urgency or deeper core of power, which does become an issue when you're making political music. 

In fact, let's start with the my three P's for political art - power, populism, and precision - because she definitely did nail the populism: the language is broad enough to encompass everybody, it's certainly approachable and accessible, and with the updated choices in production it doesn't feel nearly as detached as her debut could, all of this is good. But when it comes to power, you can tell that Prass' approach is aiming for the long-term, drawn out conflict over years that it can feel like this political conversation has become, and as such this record needs to double down on conserving strength and keeping that foundational core of higher ideals together... at least in part. See, that's the first surprise with this record: while the political pieces are getting the most attention by the music press, they really are scattered moments across a record that already feels weirdly sequenced and meandering. Sure, 'Oh My' certainly sets the stage, but it's two pretty straightforward love songs before we get 'Hot For The Mountain', which is this odd, offkilter little song with these watery strings embellishments, marching beat, where you can tell the hook is supposed to project strength against darker tensions... and it can't help but feel way too placid and reserved to get there, but too uncomfortable to inspire. And that weird framing juxtaposition also plays into 'Lost', which Prass has described as her 'Me Too' song in capturing the complicated feeling involving going back to an abuser, but the actual composition feels too light and borderline romantic to really capture a greater gravitas - not denying her experience, but this is no 'Till It Happens To You' or 'Praying'. Thankfully, it's followed by 'Sisters', one of the points where the thicker multi-tracking, sharper groove and gleaming piano foundation actually projects that core of strength Prass was looking for... and then we're back to jaunty, adult-alternative coffee-shop music for 'Never Too Late' and all the momentum is gone! And while she tries to recapture some of that darkness on 'Ship Go Down', a song openly contemplating those outside of her bubble who did vote the other way and how she'll stand against them, but the meandering Brazillian jazz inspirations don't help, not matter how much flattened electric guitar and a tighter groove that doesn't really go anywhere she rams into the midsection. And by that point, while you do get genuinely pretty songs like 'Far From You', the album is just spent and that deeper core is compromised - yes, 'Ain't Nobody' tries to revive the groove with some mid-2000s funk touches, but it just doesn't get there.

And when you start looking into precision, I can tell you why - and you'd think this would be a place where Natalie Prass could connect more strongly. Let's be real, as much as she tries to belt on 'Lost' or with songs like 'Sisters' and 'The Fire' she can nestle into the groove and hold her own, she's not a powerhouse singer and you can tell she's much more comfortable in her softer, cooing register. Which does not project strength, sure, but should be more comfortable delving into more intimate details or more elaborate imagery. And we get a bit of it:  'Hot On The Mountain' and 'Far From You' get in the right ballpark with the poetry even though I'd argue neither song cuts to the depth they could - 'Far From You' is about how Karen Carpenter died from anorexia and I doubt you could have pinpointed that from the content itself, but once you know the context the song does make sense. But the larger problem is that Prass' writing more often goes for broad strokes and language - which yes, is populist and could resonate, but it kind of runs at odds with her softer delivery and her production, which is doubling down on these tight, 80s inspired grooves that are definitely welcome in her sound but don't exactly compliment her writing style, especially on songs like 'Ship Go Down' where she ditches the cadence altogether. And this is coming from someone who really likes the wiry, Prince-esque funk of 'Oh My', that sinuous bass groove on 'Short Court Style', the piano-backed thrum of 'The Fire', and the roiling jazz/R&B impact of 'Sisters' - but as much as I like these, Prass and her production team can't help but push in the glittery strings sections and soft rock touches that both lack urgency or just organic texture. But then again, when she tried adding a real edge to the noisy guitars on 'Ship Go Down' that didn't work at all, so I'm not sure if there is an easy solution.

Look, I definitely respect what Natalie Prass tried with The Future And The Past - I certainly consider it more ambitious than her self-titled release, and I can see there being an audience for this who might shy away from music with more of a pronounced edge - but this is her second album in a row that just doesn't resonate with me. The writing is good but not great, overly broad when her delivery and production was aiming for something tighter, and weird album sequencing utterly cripples any momentum and makes the project feel a lot longer than it is. For me, it's a solid 6/10, recommended if you're a fan but not beyond that. It's a very mild brand of protest, and if that's all you're looking for, that's certainly okay - I just need a bit more punch.

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