The first result for the “Jessica Pratt” Google search is a soprano in a bloodstained white opera costume. This is not the Jessica Pratt you’re seeking. Look a little harder for this woman; like her music, she appears subtle but is worth seeking out.
Pratt’s self-titled album, released through new label Birth Records, is actually a collection of her recordings from the past five years. They don’t sound mismatched or hastily smashed together as compilations sometimes tend to be; Jessica Pratt is eleven songs in forty-one minutes, the most pleasant stream of acoustic fingerpicked dream songs, beginning with the burnished “Night Faces” and ending with “Dreams,” a woozy boy-girl fade-out with a series of “doo doo doos” that trip up and down the scale like sleepy kids on their slow way to up the stairs to bed.
Anyone who’s caught a local open mic night knows it’s hard to stand out in a crowded coffee shop of singer-songwriters. Sound like everyone else, and you’ll never be heard; make music that’s too weird and someone will tack the word “freak” on whatever brand of folk you’re peddling. This is the climate in which Pratt lives, the climate she conquers on this album.
Context counts for Pratt, whose unique voice—nasal, measured, down-home and cosmopolitan at the same time—has the potential to turn off listeners not yet accustomed to the quirky pipes of indie singers like Joanna Newsom or Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste or Alt-J’s Joe Newman. We train ourselves to get used to unfamiliar music, adjust bit by bit to our doses of Grimes and witch house and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, until they trickle into the mainstream and stranger music comes to upset our ears once again. Jessica Pratt makes relatively straightforward acoustic folk, but her voice (along with a touch of unplaceable witchcraft) sets her soft tunes apart, makes them odd and endearing, makes them novel. She seems to understand the power of her voice, so even though she couches it in lo-fi cassette crackles (on “Half Twain The Jesse”), double-tracks it with an identical twin (“Hollywood”) and complements it with a falsetto harmony (“Mountain’r Lower”), she never fails to reveal it in full, placing it front and center, right where it should be.
Her kind of folk always ends up a bit off-kilter, chords changing with apparent misdirection before ending up in a place that makes absolute sense. On “Midnight Wheels,” she sings of the midnight wheels that were “turning all the time,” then breaks into a succession of one-note “ohs” that are impenetrably sad. She teaches us that a quick mid-syllable lilt or a high, extended vibrato make the difference between bland rhymes and lyrics that appear to mean something. “Streets Of Mine,” is a simple lament—“In this town/I walk by your door/Things change/I can’t see you anymore/And you go to places that we’ve gone before”—transposed by Pratt’s voice into something weighty and wise.
I can’t imagine it’s easy to perfect Pratt’s blend of simplicity and weight, but she makes it sound easy. This album strain on the ears or on the brain, but when the last track plays out its last seconds, it leaves a feeling of satisfaction. Satisfaction is not disposable. Jessica Pratt has hit upon a sound that she should stick with for a while.