Rebecca Pronsky: Viewfinder
If you’re any sort of a country music fan, the opening bars of Viewfinder will have you drooling with pleasure. As a great big twanging guitar picks out a melody line against a cantering rhythm, Rebecca’s strong vocal cuts in, warm with vibrato and cool with authority. It sounds kind of like Natalie Merchant singing Ghost Riders in the Sky and is instant hit material for any sort of country audience. The song is called Hard Times, a signature song for the post-crash era it would seem although Rebecca’s lyrics suggest that this is more about the fallout from a relationship crash than an economic crash. She presents her insights exactly as they occur to her which means they haven’t been through a process of clarification that would let us in easily. We have to put in some work but this means that there are rewards to be gained from uncovering her meanings.
Rebecca Pronsky, born in 1980, comes from Brooklyn and Viewfinder is her second full album. In her songs here there is a persistent air of loss of innocence, of being aware of becoming a grown-up. Whether it’s the financial collapse, the nation at war or the emotional growing up of learning to live with loss, this feels like the literate voice of a generation coming of age in the new millenium. As I say, her writing can be oblique so it’s difficult to guess what specifically inspires her songs but it’s that sense of loss of innocence that I kept picking up on. This is not to say that the mood is downbeat, I’d say rather that the tone is one of cool appraisal, a consideration of the factors that led to these wounds being licked. As if to emphasise that the spirit is bloodied but not beaten the final track is a piece of mood music, calm and quietly exultant, with the refrain “I’ve been given a good life/I was born at the right time”. I suspected irony when I first heard it but I believe it’s intended as a reassertion of positive feelings, a counting of your blessings so as to remember why life is good.
So, opening with country twang, closing with a piece that makes you understand why she lists the Cocteau Twins alongside Joni Mitchell as favourite artists, and an excursion into some beautifully executed, warm lounge jazz along the way lets you know that Rebecca has plenty of strings to her bow. Her voice ties all this together; there’s a nasal quality to it – might be the Brooklyn accent coming through – and she can really sing, holding long notes when she feels like it or delivering some strong vibrato. There are times when this album gets all low-key and intimate, none more so than the song Fragile World; at first it seems there’s nothing more than Rebecca singing to her own accompaniment but you steadily become aware of a small host of extra instruments in there, delicately placed for a little extra colour. On the faster numbers where the band is more evidently in view, there is that Mark Ronson trick which, I think, is the drumbeat coming slightly ahead of the vocal; it makes the band sound as if they’re in a hurry and the vocalist sound as if she has a queenly disdain for such haste. It’s a nice contrast, like radically different flavours complementing each other surprisingly well. Occasionally, though, it does feel like the production is trying to tug things in opposite directions in a way that doesn’t work. On Fragile World, for example, the lyric is warm with empathy and remembered sorrow but the vocal is surprisingly strident in a way that grates a bit.
Save for a cover of a song by Lucy Wainwright Roche, a friend of Ms Pronsky’s, this album is all about the development of Rebecca Pronsky’s talent as a writer and as a performer. There’s at least a couple of songs here, Hard Times is one and Aberdeen, with it’s driving bass line, is the other, which ought to pick up plenty of radio play – memorable and distinctive enough to ensure that she’s much better known by the end of the year.
FSR Interview and tour feature here http://flyinshoes.ning.com/profiles/blogs/rebecca-pronsky-new-yorks