Jesca Hoop is a 41-year-old California native who’s been releasing music for about a decade now. Last year she collaborated with Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam (with whom she shares a label, Sub Pop) on Love Letter for Fire, and is now back with her 5th LP, the wonderful Memories Are Now. I was unfamiliar with Hoop’s work prior to this record, and have yet to investigate her back catalog, but I think the praise and attention this album has received, especially relative to her previous work, is more than warranted.
Hoop sort of fits into the same off-kilter folksy music that Joanna Newsom, Fiona Apple and Julia Holter call home, but her music is more stripped back and less electronic than any of those artists. Her time signatures, melodies, arrangements and instrumentation are all weirder and more interesting than your traditional acoustic strummer with a pretty voice (cough cough *Julie Byrne* cough), and on top of that her lyrical moments oscillate between on-point, profound and beautiful. Add in the factor that Hoop moves between different vocal stylings depending on the mood and tone of the song, and you’ve got an enjoyable, well-rounded and cohesive project.
Memories Are Now kicks off with a hell of a title track, one that ambles along to a strange staccato baseline and sweeps through with big vocal arrangements. Hoop even manages to explore a fresh take on memory and nostalgia, landing on profundity with “Memories Are Now / I was not there, I was not there, I’m only here”. She melds this living-in-the-moment ethos into a ‘fuck-you’ sentiment, and absolutely kills it with a gorgeous melody as she sings “I’m going through no matter what you say / go find some other life to ruin”. Amazingly, this track features exactly three instruments – a bass, a bass synth and a single tambourine keeping time. The rest of the work is done by her carefully arranged harmonies. The song is both subtle and triumphant, dipping into emotional subject matter but emerging with its head held high, never sounding sad.
Tracks 3 and 4 both concern themselves with modern technology, particularly the internet and social media, but they approach the subject with a slightly different tone. “Animal Kingdom Chaotic” has a faerie-like tribal flare to it and Hoop somehow gets her voice to sound like a flute, comparing technology to a jungle – “Robots are the new exotic / Animal kingdom chaotic” – while whimsically describing the present Vonnegut-like state where “you know you want it but the computer says no”. “Simon Says” is a standout, a rambling, bluesy western that nails folk without ever pandering to modern pop-country, and features the great lyric “WWW don’t forget life before the internet / as we pixellated generation children become application” before a slide guitar flies through, right on time.
“Cut Connection”, the first track to feature prominent percussion, stands tall as a towering, powerful centerpiece before the gorgeous and almost archaic sounding “Songs of Old” enters in its wake, emerging like a lullaby that features some great string arrangements and the baroque-like chorus “Momma singing the songs of old / Singing the rock of ages / Empires were made this way / Singing the rock of ages”. Its subject matter couldn’t be further from what Jesca had covered thus far – relationships and the internet – but she nails it both tonally and lyrically.
The followup tracks (7 and 8) again deal in the same topic with different perspectives. “Unsaid” is brimming with sexual tension and is guided by an electric guitar arpeggio that feels like it could break into something produced by soft/loud guru Steve Albini at any moment. The lyrics mirror this tension, with Hoop singing “Let’s not stay mad / Get mean / Say things we wish could be unsaid”. “Pegasi”, on the other-hand, is the most easy-going, straightforward song on the record, an affectionate love song. A whole album of cuts like this would have doomed the project, but as a one-of, in the penultimate position, the song’s melody and slide guitar are pretty enough to make it a welcome addition.
Which brings us to the epic closer, “The Coming”, where Hoop recounts the loss of her faith and religion following her upbringing in a conservative Mormon family. Standing atop a single echoing guitar, treated with reverb and tremolo, Jesca somehow makes Jesus and the Devil metaphors that don’t sound corny, using the image of “Jesus turning in his crown of thorns” to trace her own abandoning of Christianity. As the song progresses, she gets extremely personal lines like “I don’t blame my parents for clinging to the good word in hopes that it makes sens of it all” and “I can’t turn a blind eye to centuries of conflict and wrongdoing in his name” before the closing lyric, “And the coming never came”, ends the album at the edge of a cliff.
This record is excellently sequenced, offers plenty of variety, features satisfying emotional climaxes and more than some great one-liners. The production is minimal but tasteful, excelling at vocal harmonies, and the singing can be at times arresting. The only things that I think holds it back from making a larger impact on this year’s musical landscape are its relatively small scope, shortish track listing and a few songs that are fine but not standouts. Additionally, as strong as the standouts are, they are never mind-blowingly good or revolutionary. Still, as of this writing, I’d say Memories Are Now is the strongest release of 2017 (though that title may soon by usurped by Xiu Xiu or Grandaddy), and I anticipate featuring it somewhere in my top 20 by the year’s end.