Jessica Pratt is wary of being pigeonholed. She’s cautious about her connection to the current music scene in San Francisco, where she lives. San Fran groups like Thee Oh Sees, the Fresh and Onlys, and Sonny and the Sunsets have been glorying in the sounds of the ’60s — pop, folk, rock, psych — for years now, and Pratt’s aesthetic, though sparer and lonelier, seems of a piece with their mission to explore and mix older forms in the search of heady new combinations. But when asked about San Francisco’s music by The Fader, Pratt noted, “I think it’s a little deceptive…I don’t really feel like there’s that much new, exciting stuff happening here…that’s also part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to get going with this. I don’t really feel like there’s a competitive music scene here.”
Pratt’s also hesitant to embrace the old California folk scene. She claims she’s not trying to make “purely traditional old-school folk” in the modes of early Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. Despite this, Laurel Canyon, and more specifically the work of Mitchell, looms large on Pratt’s self-titled debut album.
Jessica Pratt tells stories of both change — “In this town, I walk by your door/ things change, I can’t see you anymore” — and its absence, “you go the places that we’ve gone, before/ never changing,” often within the same song. “Some days are long and/ Summer days are hard/ I was dragging my feet across the parking lot/ I remember sad faces in the mirror behind me,” she sings to start the record. The closing track, “Dreams,” brings in what sounds like it might be a male voice, hazily harmonized. “Here I am stuck here thinking about you again,” sing Pratt and her partner, and then the song stops. The album goes many places, but Pratt’s still thinking as it comes to a close.
It may not be what she’s shooting for, but that early Mitchell sound — like on Clouds, when Mitchell was working mainly in the folk vein, singing and playing alone, produced by David Crosby — is hard to ignore on Pratt’s album. Pretty much the only sounds that appear on Jessica Pratt are Pratt and a closely-recorded acoustic guitar, picking spidery melodies and pleasing circles that form the backbone of so many post-’60s folk songs. She’s got high, twirling vocals, which tend to spiral and pirouette a graceful but irregular arc from point A to B, rather than following a straight line.
But Pratt’s her own entity. Her voice isn’t as otherworldly as Mitchell’s, or as theatrical; there’s less edge. Pratt has no interest in Mitchell’s faster tracks built with hard strumming. And Pratt’s mode of singing stays constant. Mitchell would switch her attack up as she saw fit for additional impact. Instead, Pratt adds variety to her vocals with her multi-tracked self, like on the album opener “Night Faces” (which incorporates just a touch of Mitchell’s old pal Neil Young).
Sometimes Pratt’s nervousness about being looped into a scene extends to her album’s production. Some songs are cloaked in hissing tape, and her lyrics can be difficult to make out. But she doesn’t have to worry too much. When an artist starts out, being pigeonholed may not be the worst thing in the world.