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On 'Here in the Pitch,' Jessica Pratt's pop seduces listeners into a Los Angeles noir

Mystery manifests on Pratt's albums as the texture of dreams. But <em>Here in the Pitch</em>, her best album, feels completely lucid.
Samuel Hess
Mystery manifests on Pratt's albums as the texture of dreams. But Here in the Pitch, her best album, feels completely lucid.

Jessica Pratt's divine precision attunes the present to the past with an alchemy that feels outside time completely. You already know the echo and boom that open the folk mystic's fourth album, Here in the Pitch, that bump-de-bump drumbeat on "Life Is" that has traveled from The Ronettes through more than half a century of American music. Pratt's iridescent orchestral pop tune seems to specifically reference the first bars of 1965's "Guess I'm Dumb," a ballad co-written and produced by Brian Wilson when he was under the spell of Phil Spector and on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Wilson would soon step off the road with The Beach Boys, temporarily replaced at concerts by then-session guitarist Glen Campbell, to whom he gave "Guess I'm Dumb" as a token of gratitude.

Maybe it is a coincidence that Pratt's "Life Is" interpolates a beat connected to a genius of California dreaming — Pratt is among those disciples who consider Pet Sounds' studio art "biblical" — and his impending breakdown. But it befits her stated immersion into LA's sinister cultural mythologies on this preternaturally lucid album: the Manson family lore and helter-skelter violence, the underbelly of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Joan Didion's confirmed paranoias, the jasmine-scented void of her '60s Los Angeles, belong in the mix, too. In its own oblique way, Pratt's music refracts the mythography of LA — "Sunshine or Noir?" as historian Mike Davis framed its duality — in that it dares you to wonder what lies below the perfection of its deceptively simple surface. "I want to be the sunlight of the century," Pratt intones on Here in the Pitch's "World on a String," a sweeping admission with the faintest hint of unease. Who would desire such power?

Mystery manifests on Pratt's albums as the texture of dreams. But Here in the Pitch, her best album, often feels waking, transformed by pitch-black night. When Pratt first broke out with fingerpicked acoustic dream pop like a modern Sibylle Baier, or alternate-reality acid-folk Nico, her elegant music was "recorded to a cassette tape in a tiny bedroom," as she said of 2015's "Back, Baby," which was sampled last year by the pop star Troye Sivan, who noted how Pratt's voice "could have existed forever." On Here in the Pitch, Pratt writes herself out of time with sturdier architecture that gestures toward '60s baroque pop, with the pure tone of a jazz singer and melodies that seem to have existed forever, too. Her chords are crisper, her singing more concrete and commanding, occasionally imagining echoes of lost Bowie or Beatles ballads aside her twilight bossa nova grooves. Call those latter moments Astrud Gilberto in Hollywood — evoking the Brazilian jazz singer's intimate take on Burt Bacharach in 1969 — but even as this music adds touches of glockenspiel, flute, saxophone and organ, Pratt's voice seems to quiet those instruments, a psychedelic reconfiguration of space and scale.

Her minimal songs voice uncanny grandeur. Each one seems to absorb cosmic knowledge of the clock's hands ticking. "Time is time and time and time again," Pratt sings surreally on "Life Is"; "Out of luck, out of time," she announces on the closer. The imperative to self-manifest — and its attendant anxieties — are as timeless as the music's immaculate sound, these songs suggest. "Your smile'll be gone / In the end when you're yesterday's news," Pratt sings in the bossa-tinged "Better Hate," tempering her anxious truth with harmonies so delightful they become a supreme balm. "I used to want for what your desolation hadn't come by," she sings on "World on a String," as a celestial melody carries this coolly rhythmic lyric that changes shape depending on your angle, like shadows on the wall.

Here in the Pitch unfolds into darker edges — or perhaps seduces us toward them — as its second half embraces the noir lineage of Angeleno culture. The haunting "Nowhere It Was" seems to leak water in its background, a brilliantly eerie, emptied soundscape in which Pratt's high register hovers over a sputtering drum machine and an organ drone, sounding closer to outsider folk than pop. Its quiet horror bleeds into the piano ballad "Empire Never Knows," in which Pratt appears to voice, in the darkest depths of her singing, the delusions of a corrupt leader: "Empires never know / Never fall, evergrown," she sings, alongside lyrics about God, antigens and a coming dawn, exposing a fraudulent logic (empires do fall). These abstractions feel of a piece with the California cultdom that Pratt said she studied while writing Here in the Pitch, a possible broader indictment of pervasive cultdoms today.

Pratt wills herself toward hope in the end. The final song, "The Last Year," is the clearest and surest statement in her catalog — Pratt strums clipped major chords, her words flow like final credits, with the occasional drum roll and a piano that picks up the melody. It's almost painfully beautiful, an ode to wonder and resolve after some rupture in the fabric of life, narrating a new beginning while validating the pain of years passing unstoppably. "The past's no longer quite as near as you'd like, and it's gunna hurt you now," Pratt sings in the second verse. But she embodies wisdom and certainty that only time affords:

From Pratt's classic universe, the song will likely go forever, too — sung, sampled maybe, subconsciously recollected by musicians who don't know it yet — taking its journey through the collective march of time like a meditation in an emergency, the sound of a dream becoming reality.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jenn Pelly