Album Review: Natalie Douglas BACK TO THE GARDEN Starts Club44 Pairing Well

For their maiden voyage, the classy label and classic crooner start out right.

By: Feb. 29, 2024
Album Review: Natalie Douglas BACK TO THE GARDEN Starts Club44 Pairing Well
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Cabaret superstar (come on, now, you know she’s earned it) Natalie Douglas has made a heavenly alliance with Club44 Records, and the merry band of music makers has been teasing and tantalizing fans of Douglas and of great music, these last few months, with well-timed single releases of songs everyone knows (or should know), performed in the inimitable Douglas style, whetting the appetite for the feast for the ears that was to come.  Well, on February 23rd, the feast arrived and not only was it worth waiting for, it may, well, claim a spot as one of the best albums of the year, and one of the best albums of Natalie’s career.

That is a bold statement to make, I realize, when you consider the musical offerings Natalie Douglas has provided the industry in the past, including an entire album devoted to honoring the legendary Nina Simone.  The truth is that all of the albums that the many-times-over MAC Award-winning artist has released land somewhere in between sublime and perfection, but that’s pretty much the way Natalie Douglas does her art.  So let’s talk about why BACK TO THE GARDEN is so good.

First of all, the good people at Club44 Records have placed their faith, their trust, and all of their backbone into this new relationship, taking the time to make sure that every aspect of the album is carried out and presented with the utmost tender loving care and professionalism.  By simple virtue of listening to the recording, and considering the timing of the single releases, it is clear that Club44 is invested in creating a platinum setting for this jewel of an artist, as well as building a home where she will be free and nurtured into making the art that she wants to make, as she wants to make it.  This is one of those times when you can tell an artist has the backing of their label.  How else could the Fanalies be treated to so varied a collection of songs, each of them allowed to live in the era in which they were created, alongside other compositions from decades flanking them on two sides?   Natalie Douglas is showing in her curation of Back To The Garden, so much so that I found myself wondering if the title of the album (taken from the Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock”) wasn’t the natural choice for Natalie Douglas because she is taking her listeners back in time to many musical gardens full of delight, gardens that delight her.  

Album Review: Natalie Douglas BACK TO THE GARDEN Starts Club44 Pairing Well

The Big Band opener, Cole Porter’s “Begin The Beguine,” grabs you by the gullet, ever so gently but insistently, saying, “Are you ready to have some fun?” and the answer is YES.  Yes, you are ready to have fun visiting these vintage compositions that lean into the 30s (that classy Cole Porter tune ), the 70s (the Roberta Flack ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” performed at the highest level), the 20s (a deliciously jazzy “Who” by Kern, Hammerstein, and Harbach), the 60s (a long-lost song relating to the musical Oliver!), the 40s (a lush and romantic “You’ll Never Know”) and back up to the 80s with an appropriate album-ender, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”  The entire listening experience is like a history lesson in popular music from the last one hundred years, which should surprise nobody, since so much of Natalie Douglas’s career has been spent studying, presenting, honoring, and preserving that which has come before, and those who brought it to life.

But this is Natalie’s turn to bring it to life.  And even though there are respectful foundations in each track, based on original arrangements, performances, and treatments, Natalie Douglas is an artist, and she will tell these stories in the Natalie Douglas style.  And we are all the luckier for it.  You may find yourself shocked at the proficiency of Natalie Douglas’s vocal technique (although why would you, we’ve all become so used to it over the years).  And yet I did.  I’ve been a fan of the lady’s for years, and she can still surprise me, and I’m so glad.  Right off the top, with the Porter tune, the control she has over the first half of the song is mind blowing, and then, out of nowhere WHAM!, comes the belt and the high notes.  What a way to start!  But then comes the Roberta Flack number, and Flack is in the room, but this is all Douglas… and some breathtaking piano solos from Mark Hartman.  It’s like they were recording a show in the exact running order for a performance, only without the audience.  The story they are telling is very much in place, with the song providing the album title elegantly sliding into the third track… not the first, not final, the third track.  That’s style, and so is the choice to use all of the Douglas aesthetic, from the sighs of the voice to the size of the flirts, on a modern-day, sultry and seductive performance of the 1967 Disney classic “Trust In Me” from The Jungle Book.  It’s more than bold, it’s audacious - and it’s in line with what one can expect from Natalie Douglas, as is the presence of Nina Simone’s powerful “Work Song.”  Of course Natalie Douglas is going to do a Nina Simone Song, and of course it’s strong, intentional, and ferocious.  Of course.  

But equally powerful is the feeling one gets while listening to Natalie Douglas meld into every moment, every emotion, every movement.  There is a fluidity to her singing that you don't hear with everyone.  Sometimes it feels like she is playing the song from start to finish on a minimum of breathing.   There is no staccato.  There are seemless transitions from one sentence to another, from one stanza to the next, as the words and lyrics all slide together, connected to each other, and connecting the listener.  You may have never noticed it before, that's how effortless it is - but you'll never miss it, now.  You're welcome.

There are 11 songs on this 46-minute album and it wouldn’t do, not a bit, to give away all the twists and turns, and the secrets and surprises, so I’m leaving some doors unopened, but it wouldn’t be right or fair to close this down without saying that Natalie Douglas has recorded a new song, a lovely new ballad written expressly for her by Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsey. “Love Is The Power That Heals Me” is the track that grabbed me the most, as I listened to the album on Spotify while enjoying a walk around New York City.  Maybe it's because it's a new song and I was enjoying getting to know it, maybe it's because Haun and Lindsey have done a bang-on job, not just writing a great song, but writing a song just for Natalie Douglas.  And she owns it.  It fits her just like a pair of bejeweled glasses created just for her.  It also fits this album properly because there are influences in the song, musically and lyrically, that come straight out of the past.  This new composition has strains that will make you feel nostalgic for the 70s, the 90s, the radio, the pop singers, the songwriters, the artists who gave us the music that we have loved, the music that inspired Natalie Douglas to do this work, the music that surrounds this new entry on the album.  It's a classy composition and a new classic that many people will want to sing it.  But it was Natalie's first, and never should there ever be a concert or cabaret in which she does not sing it.  It’s a wonderful new song on an  exceptional new album created by what may be a new musical family, today, but that should be one that stands the test of time.

Natalie Douglas BACK TO THE GARDEN is a 2023 release on the Club44 Records label.  Visit Club44 HERE.

Back To The Garden can be found on all digital platforms.  Click HERE.

Natalie Douglas can be found online HERE.

There are so many credits for BACK TO THE GARDEN that we are going to display the album cover credits page below:

Album Review: Natalie Douglas BACK TO THE GARDEN Starts Club44 Pairing Well

Album Review: Natalie Douglas BACK TO THE GARDEN Starts Club44 Pairing Well