Released in January 2015, a disconcertingly distant-seeming point in our relatively recent past, Natalie Prass’ debut – recorded several years earlier – was among the year’s very best albums. Already established as a professional songwriter in Nashville, Prass used a palette of warm, soul-infused country (or should that be country-infused soul?) to shade her songs, sweetly string-laden and tenderly melancholy, rich in heartbreak and longing.
Her voice, too, had both a starry-eyed, lighter-than-air tone and the plain-spoken gravitas to deliver songs like Violently (“I’ll break my legs ‘cause they want to walk to you”) or the scorned, scornful Christy, part I Want You, part Jolene. As The Guardian’s Tim Jonze pointed out at the time, here was a record which “never [felt] retro, just timeless”.
The years since have only increased this feeling, and, until 9 November 2016, Prass’ mooted second album promised more in the same mould – again recorded with Matthew E White and the Spacebomb band, again shot through with love and loss. “I’m not gonna do anything drastic”, she told Stereogum in August 2015; “it’s still me”.
But the outcome of the election changed everything, and Prass ended up scrapping the whole album, wanting and needing to “take the opportunity to say some of the things that meant so much to me”. (She’s not the only artist to do so; Speedy Ortiz’ Sadie Dupuis also binned an album’s worth of material after the result, saying the “strictly personal or lovey dovey just didn’t mean anything … anymore”.)
With a release date of 1 June, Prass’ ‘new’ second album The Future And The Past is still a little way off, so tonight’s set will be the first time most of the capacity crowd will hear the results of Prass’ drastic step. It was intended to be “an album that was going to get me out of my funk,” Prass has said, hoping it “would hopefully lift other people out of theirs, too”. And it does.
Dazzling in burnished bubblegum-pink skirt, shirt and tie, with her all-male band all in blue (“I don’t try and follow gender norms,” she admits later. “Oops!”), Prass shimmies and shuffles around the stage, demanding and deserving every bit of our rapt attention.
From the clipped disco of the opening Oh My, with brittle, staccato Stratocaster stabs from guitarist Alan Parker, through Hot For The Mountain – which goes pretty much the full Steely Dan, all blindingly fast jazzy runs and warm, wide open Rhodes – Ship Go Down, and the wheedling mono synth lines and tight grooves of Short Court Style (the irresistible first single, with a feel that reminds you Prass has covered Janet Jackson in the past), the new songs are forthright, defiant and deeply funky.
In particular, second single Sisters (“You gotta keep your sisters close to ya”) pointedly illustrates best of all what Prass hoped to address in rewriting the new album (“I wanna say it loud, for all the ones held down/We gotta change the plan, come on ‘nasty women’”), and here is transformed from taut and sly into something like hard rock.
The older songs take on a new life here too, Bird Of Prey getting a dash of Chic, and Why Don’t You Believe In Me building to an echoing wig-out in the middle which Prass clearly revels in. But there’s still room for tenderness, both in the new material – Far From You, performed solo at a keyboard is a touching homage to Karen Carpenter, Prass explaining that “all my life I’d been compared to her in looks alone” – and the old, the night ending with a request for Violently, played by Prass and Parker. Shorn of strings and horns, it’s still achingly beautiful.
Even as desperate times call for drastic measures, it turns out that she was right all along: “it’s still me”. We wouldn’t change that for anything.
Natalie Prass played: Oh My, Hot For The Mountain, Sisters, Your Fool, Bird of Prey, Never Too Late, Ship Go Down, Far From You, Lost, Short Court Style, Why Don’t You Believe In Me, My Baby Don’t Understand Me, Ain’t Nobody Encore:Violently