BEST OF 2015: 22. Jessica Pratt ‘On Your Own Love Again’

At the tail end of 2012, an album of bewitchingly sparse acoustic music crept into the vinyl racks of the nation’s record shops without fanfare. It represented the gathering together of songs written for nobody but Jessica Pratt herself, which had been pulled together to form a debut that sounded like the sort of thing that reissue label Light In The Attic would have deliriously unearthed from the early Seventies. Pratt’s voice, somewhere between Karen Dalton and Vashti Bunyan, was accompanied by a plucked acoustic guitar and the warm fuzz of the tape to which it was committed. It remains a firm favourite and I’ve elaborated on its charms elsewhere.

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For this second outing, now signed to Drag City, she recorded all analogue to a four-track and the background hiss is once again part of the sound. The result is a sound the seems to hover in the room, hard to pinpoint but utterly captivating as if beamed in from another time. The neat little gear changes in songs like ‘Game That I Play’ are delightfully odd and this is an album that is wilfully out of step with pretty much anything else released this year.

A few dabs of colour are added to the original formula, such as the distant clavinet of ‘Moon Dude’, which only adds to its woozy, lilting charm, and a light touch of electric organ on the opener ‘Wrong Hand’, but the focus understandably remains on Pratt’s unique voice.  The lyrics tell wry stories about the trials of city living in the twenty-first century, balancing up emotions surrounding love and loss. Their delivery is always magical, Pratt pushing and pulling her performance all over the place. At one point during ‘Greycedes’ it sounds like she’s just gently descending and it’s quite something.

Jacquelyn In The Background’ takes this one step further, manipulating the recording by varying the speed of the tape and bending her voice out of shape. The already slightly trippy feel rendered by the incessant hiss is ratcheted up a level and you have to check you’re not hearing things. Indeed, that sense of listening to something ‘other’ is hard to shake. The beneficiary of a beautiful vinyl pressing, this is a late night listen without peer and one made for the analogue realm. Its inherent sonic limitations rather neatly fit the inherent sonic limitations of that beloved format.

On Your Own Love Again’ is a timeless record by a remarkable talent who it’s not unreasonable to suggest is only just starting to show what she can do. Both releases to date are pretty much essential, but it remains to be seen if the bare bones approach will endure. It certainly suits these unadorned but penetrating songs, which grow in stature as they grow in familiarity. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being delighted to make their acquaintance.

BEST OF 2015: 23. Joanna Newsom ‘Divers’

I think it would be fair to say that in the past I’ve liked the idea of Joanna Newsom’s music more than the music itself. I’ve just pulled down the 3LP box of ‘Have One On Me’ and I’m struggling to recall when last it adorned my turntable. An expansive but often intimate release, it picked over the detritus remaining after a former relationship in the lyrics, whilst eschewing conventional song structures on a number of its tracks. While I know I like it, I don’t like it enough to truly know it. ‘Ys’, ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’ and even the ‘Ys Street Band’ EP are all there in the racks but rare is the time I reach for them. No such problem surrounds ‘Divers’, an album which has made a grand impression on me in a short space of time. Indeed, I can’t help wondering where it would be in the list if it had been released a little earlier in the year.

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As if somehow knowing which bits of those earlier records I was drawn to, this latest feels like a deeply satisfying distillation of Newsom’s delightfully irregular approach to songwriting. As a result, relatively short songs burst with invention. The shimmering marxophone on ‘Leaving The City’ is neatly usurped by mellotron bursts, pushing it in a more chaotic direction. Just as Julia Holter managed to evoke the sound of Los Angeles in ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ on 2013’s ‘Loud City Song’, this cacophonous burst delivers something similarly immersive.

Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne’ is bedecked with both field organ and accordion to predictably charming effect, while ‘The Things I Saw’ is just piano and a touch of musical saw. For some reason, it makes me think of the early Tom Waits albums when he was still happy telling a decent story alongside a nifty little melody. When a snippet of Newsom’s vocals are suddenly run backwards at the song’s conclusion, it feels oddly modern for the context, echoing the heavily treated samples so favoured by dubstep.

Same Old Man’ is a brief delight, conjuring an incredibly strong sense of Karen Dalton, whose minimal discography belongs in everyone’s record collection. At just shy of two and a half minutes, it’s a fleeting, poetic meditation on time passing. Along with ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive‘, it ensures that momentum is sustained throughout. Indeed, the album’s finest moment and the reason why, I suspect, Newsom finally fully clicked for me is ‘Time, As A Symptom’.

Commencing with bird noise and sombre piano, it slowly gains intensity, the first delivery of the refrain “the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life” occupying a sparse landscape, only for the City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to put in an appearance by the time it comes around again. From there the track ascends beguilingly, en route to a quite staggering crescendo. It is one of my favourite songs of 2015 and reason enough to ensure that ‘Divers’ enters your life.

Oh, and I’m far from the first one to say it, but listen to the last line of the wonderful closer and then play the start of the first track, ‘Anecdotes’, again. It’ll make you smile.