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Review: Natalie Prass and Stella Donnelly dance through the chaos at the Turf Club

by Colleen Cowie

September 22, 2018

After writing material for her sophomore album, Natalie Prass decided to scrap it all and start from scratch. In light of the 2016 election, Prass felt that she needed to create a body of work that reflected the world unfolding around her. The result is The Future and the Past, a sharp departure from her dreamy and melancholic full-length debut. Prass and her band brought this fresh, danceable repertoire of songs to the Turf Club last night, joined by Stella Donnelly.

Stella Donnelly, a singer-songwriter from Perth, Australia, kicked off the night with a solo set. Although Donnelly stepped on stage with only a guitar in hand, her set sent ripples through the audience as she sung about uncomfortable family gatherings, workplace misunderstandings, and awkward Tinder dates.

Donnelly nodded to her days working as a server at a pub, first with the song "You Owe Me," in which she demands her due pay from her boss (turns out she just mixed up the pay periods and was a week off schedule). She also dedicated the song "Mechanical Bull" to the bar staff at Turf Club, reminiscing about the demands of working a sometimes thankless job.

She played a few unreleased songs, such as "Season's Greetings," but also pulled material from Thrush Metal, her debut album from April 2017. Donnelly explained that when she released the album, she only expected to sell 30 copies (for her parents and their "28 friends"). She named the album Thrush Metal as a joke, and decided to fill the album's cover with a portrait of herself with noodles falling out of her mouth. Now she is touring the U.S. with Natalie Prass.

One of the songs on Thrush Metal is "Boys Will Be Boys," which Donnelly wrote after a friend opened up to her about experiencing sexual assault. "Why was she all alone, wearing her shirt that low? They said, 'Boys will be boys'; deaf to the word no," Donnelly sang in the song's chorus.

Throughout her set, Donnelly wielded her voice with precision, crescendoing from soft whispers to belted notes with skill, leaving trails of quivering vibrato at the end of her phrases. She performed a live fade-out at the end of one of her songs ("This one's a fade-out," she alerted the audience) and rolled her eyes at some of the lines that characters in her songs delivered. Her stage banter was quick and witty, and Donnelly often added lines in the middle of songs, creating running-commentary for herself and blurring the lines between where her songs started and ended.

Natalie Prass opened her set with the first track on The Future and the Past, "Oh My." The song sets the tone for the album: it is infectiously funky, dance-inducing, and layered with sharp commentary on today's social and political climates. "Seems like everyday we're losing when we chose to read the news yeah, oh my," Prass sang on top of a steady R&B groove.

The band's attire nodded to the album's artworkPrass donned a matching yellow circle skirt and button-up blouse and the rest of her band wore head-to-toe electric blue outfits. The majority of their set included songs from The Future and the Past, but the band also threw in a few songs from Prass's debut self-titled album, including "Bird of Prey." (Prass also stopped by The Current to record a session.)

Instead of playing the song faithfully to its 2015 recording, the band put a fresh spin on it, soaking the lovelorn lyrics with the funk, R&B, and jazz influence of Prass's newer songs. The song tells the story of someone running away from a controlling relationship. However, when reframed within the confidence and groove of Prass' contemporary style, the song took on an almost mocking tone. "You don't own me," Prass seemed to say through her unhindered dance moves and uptempo arrangement.

Prass dedicated the song "Sisters" to Donnelly. Prass requested pink lights onstage for the song, which goes out to all the "nasty women," "bad girls," and "ones held down."

As the night went on, Prass's set seemed to teeter somewhere between chaos and control. She swayed along to the beat of each song and accentuated the rhythm with crisp arm motions that mimicked the choreography of a seasoned flight attendant. Later in the same song, she would abandon any fragment of precision, tossing her head and surrendering her body to the ebbs and flows of the rhythm section.

Many of her songs contain multiple modulations, keeping the listener uncertain of which key center they will land in next. The verse of "Hot For the Mountain" contains a particularly unsettling interval, a tritone, which is known for being so unnerving that it earned the nickname "the devil's interval" and is rumored to have been banned from Renaissance church music.

However, at the end of each unsettling passage, Prass rewarded her audience with an infectious, hip-shaking groove. Her songs bubbled to catastrophic climaxes, like the shrieking guitar solo at the end of "Ship Go Down," but Prass always shimmied her way out of the chaos, and the crowd willfully bobbed along with her.

Prass introduced "Never Too Late" as one of her current favorites from the new album (she says she's "always wanted to write a yacht rock song"). She explained that the song is about "keeping love in your heart and forgiving people." "Sometimes you can't," she admitted, "but during these four minutes we will."

That statement seemed to capture the sentiment of the night; that other people's actions are out of your control — sometimes you find yourself in unsettling or uncertain circumstances. Sometimes you find yourself in the midst of chaos, of hate, of a divide that seems insurmountable. But instead of letting fear overwhelm you, you can open your arms and dance through the storm.

Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.