Saturday, June 20 will be a night for coming close and leaning in at BSP in Kingston. Output Agency once again proves itself a matchmaker extraordinaire, pairing two very different flavors and methodologies of quiet: a solo set by the always-solo headliner Jessica Pratt and a stripped-down duo show by the nationally known, locally residing band Widowspeak.
The California songwriter Jessica Pratt has released two well-received records not just of solo, lo-fi acoustic music but of solo, lo-fi nylon-string acoustic music. Hushed, luminous and – this most of all – completely disinterested in conventional folk chord progressions, Pratt’s work is bit too easily pigeonholed as celestial, harmonically irresolute folk in the tradition of Blue-era Joni and of the meandering, weirdly voiced folk arpeggios of David Crosby in “Guinevere” mode. (Throw in some Nick Drake and you’ve probably got the triumvirate of references of convenience.) These are by no means unflattering comparisons, but it is not hard to understand why Pratt bristles mildly at how frequently they are invoked.
Both of Pratt’s releases work with the same Spartan palette: one, sometimes two, nylon-string guitars and one, sometimes two, vocal tracks. Given that pretty-much-unvarying template, it is remarkable how different the records sound and feel. On Your Own Love Again (2015, Drag City) trades in the relative lucidity of Jessica Pratt (2012, Birth Records) for a darker, thicker, more ambient sound and considerably more tape hiss. If anything, On Your Own Love Again sounds truer to the spirit of Pratt’s Muse as something both intimate and remote, commonplace and mythic, traveling across a certain distance to get to this world and losing some resolution along the way.
More striking still is the growth in her songwriting toward stronger purpose and popcraft. Both albums work in a kind of bedroom Debussy mode: major sevens and elevens in a colorful waft and wash that are not at all bent toward resolutions, though they happen sometimes anyway. But on the new album, there is a markedly sharper sense of harmonic direction, tighter turns and more shapely lines.
“Baby, Back” hints at jet-set swank pop. “Game that I Play” and “Jacquelyn in the Background” almost seem to rediscover Jobim, but pull up well short of any such reference (though with the chronic nylon-stringedness of it all, and the taste for jazzy chords, bossa nova will always be hovering right there). “Jacquelyn” is also notable for its two radical breaks from Pratt’s protocol: A) another instrument, hard to say what, adding a background layer; and Cool Sunglasses Guy) a bizarre tape-speed meltdown modulation about halfway through that is so singular and out-of-character that one wonders if it weren’t a genuine accident.
On the album-closing title track, Pratt seems to point in a different direction entirely, toward crisp Tin Pan Alley harmony with a touch of blues and tight, conventional songcraft. One wonders if her next solo nylon-string album will manage to sound completely different as well.
Widowspeak, on the other hand, approaches sounding different by using different sounds: many, many different sounds, mostly made by guitars, artfully layered in long-form electric Americana. The genre engines call them dreampop. They call themselves “an American Rock ’n Roll Band,” and I am going with them on this one. Many of Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas’ songs offer a Brooklynated, degendered, indie cowboy myth with Southwestern, swamp, and Laurel Canyon flavors. They are filled with luminous natural images and the birth of new identities under the moon and stars. The music plays along with a witty, soft twang and drawl, a moody garage vibe and a light, non-binding psychedelia of bent strings and primitive jangle. The exquisite-but-unfussy guitar arrangements are like roughhewn pyramids that contain and enhance the power of Hamilton’s unaffected, ultra-hushed delivery.
Widowspeak’s lovely new single “Girls” – a quietly impassioned plea for self-acceptance and independence – was recently released in advance of a finished full-length, All Yours, due in September on Captured Tracks.
Tickets for Jessica Pratt and Widowspeak at BSP cost $10 in advance, $12 on the night of the show. They are available locally at Outdated and Rocket Number Nine in Kingston, Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Darkside Records in Poughkeepsie and the Woodstock Music Shop.
Jessica Pratt & Widowspeak, Saturday, June 20, 8:30 p.m., $10/$12, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.