Natalie Prass’ The Future And The Past melds modern pop history and socio-political advocacy


Natalie Prass
ATO Records

Spanish-American author George Santayana once opined: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Natalie Prass, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter from Richmond, Virginia, is not the most obvious political pundit, but in her sophomore record, the past and the future are very much on her mind.

Feted for her 2015 self-titled debut, she had apparently recorded two albums' worth of songs before she got blind-sided by the results of the 2016 United States presidential elections.

She scrapped most of her recordings and started afresh. She retreated to her rehearsal space to "read, write, play piano for a little bit and cry", as she said in an interview.

"I felt like it was my responsibility to try and put some positive energy into the world and talk about things that were very real," she added.

Produced by good friend Matthew E. White and working with the acclaimed Spacebomb House Band, The Future And The Past is a luminous alchemy of modern pop history and socio-political advocacy. She wants the listener to acknowledge the lessons of the past while taking up arms for the future.

To that end, the album is impeccably produced, boasting the trademark Spacebomb sound: a lush, emollient vibe that recalls anything from bluesy Dusty Springfield to folksy Janis Ian to soulful Aretha Franklin - not just in terms of sonics, but also their heart-stirring stories and messages.

She's invoking the spirit of those who have come before her and rallying the present generation to take action.

"Keep your sisters close... We gotta change the plan/Come on nasty women," she sings in Sisters, a funky, gospel anthem with spiffy drums and nimble riffs, exhorting everyone swept up in the #MeToo fervour to soldier on.

That's the metier of Prass' art: She shimmies, she swings, she wins you over.

That movement also touches a nerve close to home. Lost, a piano dirge, unearths uneasy memories of a toxic relationship. "You had me hypnotised/You realised that/Your fingerprints were on my bones" are powerful words delivered in an understated manner that recalls the sucker-punch emotions of folks such as Laura Nyro and Carole King.

Hot For The Mountain is another unlikely protest song, starting off jazzy and languorous as Prass deftly navigates the tricky melody lines. As a serpentine string weaves its magic, she moves on to the next gear, purring "Slowly rising up… We'll take you on".

It ends in a rapturous nod to tropicalia, the early 1970s Brazilian take on psychedelia, pop, rock and jazz, the genre which provides the soundtrack to the revolutionary changes in that country.

That revolutionary spirit infuses Ship Go Down, the swooning, mutating six-minute epic which reflects the tumult in the State of the Union. "Power is in fear/And aimed upon me," she sings, as the music flits from chamber pop to nu-soul to free-falling, prog-rock climax. "Oh, no, no, I am never drowning," she concludes, striking an ambiguous note of defiance and delusion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2018, with the headline 'Learning from the past to tackle the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe