review: Jessica Pratt’s ‘Quiet Signs’ is a gripping entry into her hidden world
Across her first two albums, 2012's self-titled (released on Tim Presley's Birth Records) and 2015's On Your Own Love Again (Drag City), Jessica Pratt perfected a type of home-recorded folk music that wasn't just influenced by the great cult folk singers of the late '60s and early '70s, but sounded like they could have been lost records from that very era. Jessica managed to tune out just about every modern trend imaginable; even likeminded artists like Angel Olsen and Fleet Foxes weaved '60s/'70s folk into the context of modern-day indie rock, but Jessica Pratt's music always sounded more hidden from the rest of the world. She recorded these songs at home, and just from listening to them you could picture her alone in a room gently strumming her guitar and quietly singing, as if to not disturb anyone else in the house. She deservedly built up a strong fanbase, but her songs never sounded concerned with what anyone else might think. They always sounded solitary, and listening to them felt like peering in at someone's private life.
Her third album Quiet Signs is her first for Mexican Summer and it's also her first fully recorded in a studio. The studio environment allowed for a slightly cleaner sound than ever before, and she used the opportunity to embellish her songs with flute, organ, and piano (courtesy of co-producer Al Carlson), as well as a string synthesizer (courtesy of Matt McDermott, who also played some of the piano), and these new touches do wonder for Jessica's sound. They're subtle though; Quiet Signs is still mostly in the same quiet, tucked-away world as Jessica Pratt and On Your Own Love Again, and that's not a bad thing at all in her case. When your albums are this short and fat-trimmed, only come out every three or four years, and your songwriting style is this consistently distinct and captivating, slight tweaks to a time-tested formula are all you need to come out with powerful music each time.
And with a style that's been so unique from the start, it's refreshing that Jessica is still resisting the urge to make her music more zeitgeisty the way so many of her likeminded peers have. (Many of those peers have also gone on to write brilliant music, but it's still a treat to hear Jessica staying true to her roots like this.) The sonic comparisons that come to mind for Quiet Signs are still nearly a half century old, and the lyrical ones are even older. Her words often bring to mind 19th century American poetry, while the music has a psychedelic atmosphere that recalls David Crosby's solo debut If I Could Only Remember My Name, and -- even with the new touch of studio shine -- the production has the shaky, bare-bones sound of Sibylle Baier's home-recorded Colour Green. The album opens with a simple yet effective piano motif, one that's almost closer to an old jazz record than an old folk record. It goes on instrumentally for almost two minutes, sneaking its way into your brain, and by the time Jessica mimics the melody with her acoustic guitar on second song "As the World Turns," it feels like you've known it all your life. Once Jessica finally sings, she delivers this hushed, Crosby-esque melody, and it's the perfect counterpoint to the melody she's playing on guitar. That's an ongoing theme of Quiet Signs; Jessica starts out with a subtly gripping guitar melody, and then overlaps it with an equally gorgeous vocal melody, one that you wouldn't entirely expect to hear but that matches perfectly. She has an impeccable phrasing style as a guitarist, and the way her guitar dances back and forth with her voice always makes her songs hit the same unique sweet spot.
As with its predecessors, Quiet Signs is so rooted in a world unlike the one we live in that it has the power to pull you right out of your day-to-day life. Quiet Signs doesn't interact with social media or fake news or other current cultural trends any more than it interacts with current musical trends. And it's best listened to when you aren't paying attention to those types of things. It's not the soundtrack to scrolling through your Twitter feed; it's pure escapism. Put it on when you're tuned out of the daily noise -- maybe very late at night or very early in the morning -- and let yourself slip away.
UPDATE: Stream the album here: