Photo by Shana Leigh Photography
From its first few twangy notes of country pop guitar, Casey Noel’s debut EP Not Just Pretty Words comes off as easygoing, almost effortless, and for good reason; it’s the product of years of preparation. She first took lessons in classical fingerpicking after being gifted a Spanish guitar from her grandfather at the age of five, and later, after a decade-or-so diversion in ballroom dance, she took up singing and songwriting, even starting a local showcase in her hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina earlier this year. As you might imagine, and as these six tracks show, she’s put a lot of thought into the medium.
Noel says the turning point came back in 2017, when she won a scholarship to a writing camp taught by folk legends like Patty Griffin and Richard Thompson. She credits one-on-one advice from Thompson (and encouragement from his son, Teddy) with letting her know she was on the right track, artistically. It’s a telling anecdote–her talent and voice are her own, but on Not Just Pretty Words, you can trace them to a lineage of writers who concern themselves with craft as much as expression, not to mention pop effect.
You can best hear that finesse in the opening track, “The Hang-Up,” which threads all three needles. It’s a wistful, uptempo number about love turned to sour fixation, and it’s built on a foundation of wit. “You’re my blade of grass and I’m the morning dew / Just when I think I’ve made it through, I wake up stuck on you,” she sings, establishing its clever central metaphor. But as the EP title suggests, there’s emotional complexity behind those pretty words. Noel contrasts snappy lyrics with a bittersweet chord progression, poignant in the way it turns the reliability and renewal of the morning dew into an image of disappointment.
Often, she wields that sharp tongue in the service of friendly sincerity–in the catchy title track, “Pretty Words,” she joins in the tradition of woman-to-woman advice songs, speaking on the limits of a man’s appealing talk over sympathetic mandolin strumming. (It’s all the more authoritative–maybe even a little tongue-in-cheek–from a wordsmith like herself.) She explores a different form in “Marsh Girl,” by far the project’s darkest track and its most musically interesting, backing up her wary picking with bowed upright bass and swampy atmospherics. It’s a third-person story song inspired by Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, and Noel wears its brooding folk-noir well.
She also knows how to grab your attention with an unexpected twist, like the abrupt minor fall near the end of “Prove Me Wrong.” With that song’s self-aware quip about bridges, Noel again shows her hand as a student of song construction, but even when she falls back on an easy rhyme (“like the rest / pass the test”), her honeyed voice and Doug Williams’ light production keep things gently flowing forward.
In fact, much of the EP slips by, pleasantly unhurried, like leaves floating past you down a creek. For all the time and intention behind it, it’s nice and relaxed, even through the last track, “Seasons,” where she meets cycles of nature and growing pains with old-soul acceptance–the kind of confidence that makes Not Just Pretty Words sound less like a debut and more like a burgeoning writer in media res.