Music review: Singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt's Quiet Signs is slow-burning magic

San Francisco-born, Los Angeles-based songsmith Jessica Pratt believes less is more - her third album, Quiet Signs, unfurls its slow-burning magic over nine tracks in only 28 minutes. PHOTO: SAAMUEL RICHARD

Indie folk


Jessica Pratt

Mexican Summer

Four stars

Spring cleaning done, you stare at the Everest of discarded clothes and wonder: Does this spark joy or kill joy instead?

This conundrum, thankfully, does not apply to the richly minimalist music of Jessica Pratt. This San Francisco-born, Los Angeles-based songsmith believes less is more - her third album, Quiet Signs, unfurls its slow-burning magic over nine tracks in only 28 minutes.

Yet, the more time spent with it, the more one is spellbound. In her confidently unharried style one espies the influence of forebears such as Joni Mitchell and Sibylle Baier, and in its conspiratorial hush someone like Janis Ian too.

This cool crispness is foiled by her childlike (some might say witchy) soprano, not as tremulous as Josephine Foster's, or outlandish as Joanna Newsom's, but something more elusive and shyer and therefore eerier.

Miked low and woven into chamber-pop reverie, it can even sound muffled, distant. At times, it is suspended, drifting with the dips and swells of woodwinds into an alternate Arcadia, or purgatory, or both.

Crossing begins innocently enough as a bucolic ballad. "I've been singing along to try/To sing along," she sings over buttery, seamless strums, before the ominous addendum changes the mood entirely: "And you stole my singing/And you say that you ought to be strong/poison all."

The effect is dreamlike, as if words as well as their attendant meanings are being recontextualised by the beseeching, circular melody.

The same peripatetic urge propels Fare Thee Well, ostensibly a goodbye letter to someone beloved, a paramour, or a listener. "We come to tell the story's end along in the wind/I've been keeping up again," she confesses, as a flute winds through the subtly evolving tune, buffered by guitar and organ.

"A seabird laughs alone in the dark," comes a singer in a narrative imperiled by decoys and red herrings. "I've been years on the wrong side/And I used to see a cause and a call," she confesses in the chorus.

She finds solace in a jazzier, more soulful nocturne. In This Time Around, a lonesome horn keens in the background as she opens up about the ghosts that haunt: "This time round/Has it gone grey that my faith can't hold out?" Her voice rings out in the cavernous night buttressed by simple acoustic strums.

Pratt plays off soft against hard as she navigates emotional pitfalls, gleaning light in darkness and vice versa. In Silent Song, she addresses an unrequited love: "I long to stay with you/Or did I belong to my song? Here I'll wonder, soldier on."

Her voice, unexpectedly, drops a notch, sounding almost brusque - and the listener is jolted out of his lull.

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