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Two songwriters take folk music in divergent directions

La Guerre, aka Katlyn Conroy, writes catchy, inventive songs.
La Guerre, aka Katlyn Conroy, writes catchy, inventive songs. xxx

The singer/songwriter genre is vast and diverse, comprising an array of niches and cults and a variety of intentions.

Two singer/songwriters — Jessica Pratt and local musician La Guerre — released new albums recently. Each took a different approach to her music and songcraft, but both succeeded in creating something distinctive and appealing. Here’s a look at both albums:

La Guerre, “Sapphires”

La Guerre is the nom de plume of Katlyn Conroy, a Lawrence musician and former member of the much-loved and -missed group Cowboy Indian Bear. “Sapphires” is her second full-length album on The Record Machine, a Kansas City label.

On her Bandcamp page, Conroy aptly calls herself a “pop electronic folk singer songwriter.”. “Sapphires” is a collection of songs that are accessible and appealing upon first listen — catchy and inventive — but not predictable. And it feels more organic than electronic. Joshua Browning, part of her studio band, produced and engineered an album that is both warm and invigorating.

It opens with “Matthew,” an ominous hymn that rides a tide of ethereal electronic sounds and effects, telling a story of escape from tragedy. The song comes and goes in two minutes plus change, but it sets a tone sustained through 11 songs that don’t flinch lyrically but deliver most of their verbal saltiness within melodies saturated in sweetness.

“Favored” is next, a stern guitar anthem with some profane lyrics that express resentment or regret, then shifts into a ballad with lyrics shrouded in keyboards and hypnotic background vocals that express forgiveness or submission.

On “Any Other,” Conroy unleashes her pop spirit. It opens with a bouncy keyboard riff, then a slinky guitar and bass line arrive. The spry melody betrays the tone of the lyrics: “When the blame lies with the weakest / This is hopeless / I’ll never notice / When I drop my guard I’m a goner / I’ve got to be stronger / But I’ve got to get along.” Then the chorus waltzes in, a sun shower of harmonies and another shift in color and mood.

Conroy’s voice is expressive and in command of a substantial range. Resemblances are elusive, but Feist came to mind several times, Tori Amos once or twice. And during the lusciously poppy “The Mystery of My Bed,” one of several highlights, Christine McVie popped in my head.

But those similarities are mostly vague and subtle. On “Sapphires,” Conroy has rendered a collection of intimate songs in a voice all her own, one that lives up to its luminous title.

Jessica Pratt, “On Your Own Love Again”

Pratt, 27, is a native of San Francisco living in Los Angeles, but her dainty folk songs feel born in another era and rooted in another continent.

“On Your Own Love Again” is the follow-up to her self-released, self-titled debut and her first on Drag City records. Over the course of nine songs, in an arresting childlike voice that may remind you of Nanci Griffith or Pratt’s label mate Joanna Newsom, Pratt delivers delicate, wistful folk tunes, most rendered in nothing but her vocal and the delicate plucking of an acoustic guitar.

Pratt has been cast into the “freak folk” genre amid songwriters like Vashti Bunyan, Devendra Banhart and Newsom: composers who stray from traditional folk arrangements and barge into styles that are more free-form, unpredictable, at times deranged.

“Love Again” falls somewhere in between. Its mood — austere, melancholic, pastoral, wistful — feels inspired by late-’60s folk, mostly the British variety, drawn from the sounds of Sandy Denny, Cat Stevens, Donovan and especially Nick Drake. But other resemblances emerge, including a young Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkel in their “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” days.

Those resemblances are implicit but consistent. Pratt’s songs are less structured and more informal: no sturdy verse/chorus/bridge constructs here. Instead, lyrics, often cryptic or seemingly train-of-thought, are swathed in lovely melodies that waft and float and drift, often from one key to another, before resolving themselves.

She lays down her own harmonies on several tunes, adding luster to their tranquil, introspective moods. But surprises arrive. On “Greycedes,” a male voice takes the lead for a line or two, and Belle & Sebastian pop into mind.

Pratt has a way of toying with enunciation, which can further foil interpretation of her lyrics. In “Game That I Play,” for example, she bends the pronunciation of “mine” and “find” (it sounds like “man” and “fan”), an affectation that straddles the line between charm and nuisance.

The words to a song such as “Moon Dude” typify her gauzy lyrical style: “Moon Dude, you can try the weight / Of your body now in space / In time, you can cast your gaze on our planet lines.” On “Jacquelyn in the Background,” the meaning is less elusive: “Oh, Jacquelyn, I see you coming through / See the changes in your smile / In the background, you’re changing colors now / Leave your bad news for a while.”

There’s no bad news here for anyone who likes their folk music pristine and a little off-kilter.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

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