Hunting My Dress ••••
California native Jesca Hoop has a back story so eventful that it might overshadow the music of a lesser talent. Raised as a Mormon in a large family who sang folk songs together, she broke away from the unusual strictures of her upbringing to be a homesteader in Wyoming and to work with children in the mountains of Arizona. This somehow led to a stint as nanny to the three children of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, and it was through this fortuitous circumstance that, in late 2006, her early demos reached the ears of tastemaker DJ Nic Harcourt of LA-based radio station KCRW. Her debut album Kismet followed in 2007, leading to tours with Polyphonic Spree, the similarly musically eccentric Andrew Bird, and with Elbow, the latter association encouraging her recent relocation to Manchester.
From the trilling vocal fanfare that heralds opening song ‘Whispering Light’, it becomes immediately clear that Hunting My Dress is the work of a singular artist. Throughout the album, staccato rhythms, layers of vocal harmony and abstract, onomatopoeic lyrics add up to make the sounds more important and immediate than the meanings on many of the songs. When this impressionistic vision comes into sharper focus, for instance on the surprisingly unsentimental song to her late mother, ‘Angel Mom’, the result is heartfelt and moving. When this dense and mysterious technique doesn’t work so well, as on the rather disjointed ‘Feast Of The Heart’ and ‘Bed Across The Sea’, it feels like Hoop is attempting to fit in too many ideas at once.
On every track the main draw is Hoop’s remarkable vocal, her unusual pronunciation bringing to mind the more esoteric English folk singers. She claims to have “relearned” singing in order to find her own unique style, ranging from swooping and bird-like to an almost spoken, intimate whisper. ‘Murder Of Birds’, a slow-burning duet with Elbow’s Guy Garvey, shows this off beautifully with some subtle harmonies. Another standout, ‘The Kingdom’ starts out gentle and acoustic over a backdrop of crickets chirping and what sounds like the crackles of a campfire, before being joined by rickety percussion that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tom Waits record. It certainly sounds like he left some of his percussive bone xylophones lying around.
Given that Hunting My Dress contains elements of such disparate musical forms as Native American rhythms, folk madrigals, murder ballads and even a bit of cabaret, it’s a surprisingly coherent set, somehow managing to sound all of a piece. In the same way as touchstone artists like Kate Bush and Björk only ever sound like themselves, Hoop has a conspicuously original musical personality. And at under 40 minutes in length there is no sense of her outstaying her welcome, while repeated listens are only rewarded with further insight into her peculiar, writerly imagination.
UK release date: 30/11/09; www.myspace.com/jescahoop
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