Natalie Royal: Harbinger


Natalie Royal
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Some albums spring to life in short order while others take months or even years to gestate, mature and prepare to be birthed into the world. This sophomore release from Nashville thrush Natalie Royal took both paths.

Harbinger’s initial tracks were recorded back in the spring of 2014 in only 10 days at East Nashville’s Bomb Shelter with producer Ryan McFadden. Two years and likely lots of thought, tweaking and rearrangements later, the finished product is finally ready for prime time. From its ghostly opening a cappella “1200 Weeks” (whose lyrics give the disc its title), where Royal overdubs her voice with only churchy echo and lingering bass, to the closing, throbbing rhythm-section-driven “Supernova,” the singer explores unique and captivating use of space as it relates to weaving her singing and music together.

It helps that Royal boasts a glistening, intermittently hushed voice, at times similar to a younger Joni Mitchell, which conveys feeling and a generally melancholy mood with subtle yet often forceful intensity. This is a meticulously arranged studio creation as she and McFadden use shadows and light to illuminate songs that generally don’t follow traditional verse/chorus paths. Headphones also aid the listener to track the intricate and precise layering of instruments, something she dabbled in on her 2012 debut but solidifies here. Songs such as “Babbling Kind” bring strings to highlight and underpin both the lyrics and the bubbling beats that create tension and release. There seems to be an audio nod to Peter Gabriel on some selections like “It’s Funny How” that use gurgling percussion to create an offbeat vibe.

Royal’s secret weapon is backing reed man Anthony Jorrisen whose coatings of sax, flute and clarinet perfectly augment the groove in low key, sensitive lines played with unusual restraint and artistry. Not entirely folk, pop, jazz or world music, Royal uses bits of those genres to craft songs with memorable yet often twisting melodies. Sometimes she tries to do too much on tunes like “Let Me Let You Go” which can get overly finicky.

But between her honeyed voice, lyrics that examine the joys and sorrows of the human experience (occasionally referencing the death of her father), and music that pushes outside the standard singer-songwriter envelope, you’ll forgive those few missteps and be thankful she and McFadden didn’t rush this haunting album to its natural completion.

Song Premiere: Sophie Strauss, “Walk Easy”

Margo Price: Act Naturally