Singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop has an interesting and obscure musical background. Being raised in a traditional Mormon family, Hoop’s first endeavours as a young singer were tied to her family’s religion and musical environment that provided the backdrop to the folk singer’s budding talent. Hoop would sing hymns and folk tunes with her family in four-part harmony, undoubtedly contributing to her musical development and awareness of the intricacies of folk music. Despite having now left behind Mormonism, the influence from the traditional songs that Hoop would sing with her family clearly shaped the idiom within which the songwriter routinely operates. Hoop, however, would not have been discovered were it not for her fortunate connection to boundary-breaking legend Tom Waits, being the nanny to his children in the early 2000s. Her connection with Waits was instrumental in having her musical ability discovered, bringing her into contact with Lionel Conway, Waits’ music publisher, whose company subsequently offered Hoop a recording contract. The following underground success of a demo recording of her song Seed of Wonder and growing interest in her live performances around the Los Angeles area highlighted the appeal of Hoop’s music, making her signature to 3 Records — a child company of Columbia Records — a promising venture for the singer-songwriter. Since her debut, Hoop has seen growing success, which peaked last year following her collaborative Love Letters for Fire album with Sam Bean, known more commonly by his musical pseudonym of Iron & Wine. A pairing with such a successful name in the current folk game along with the positive reception with which their album was critically received both introduced Hoop to a new audience and caught the music world’s attention more than any of her other works. This album saw my own introduction to Hoop, although it left only a minimal impression on me at the time. I subsequently listened to Hoop’s other material, and whilst I was interested in her knowledge of both traditional and contemporary folk music, along with her keenness to marry folk with other genres such as jazz, blues, indie and rock, my interest did not translate into much more than a relative amount of respect for the artist. Nevertheless, I remained curious to hear her next solo endeavour, as I can certainly see Hoop producing some fantastic full-length projects. Memories Are Now seems to pick up where Love Letters for Fire left off, with the singer clearly bringing some of the ideas from that album onto her new release. Whilst this new album from Hoop comes through with some lovely songs and intriguing ideas, it still isn’t exactly the record I want to hear from her.
Perhaps one of the most striking qualities of Memories Are Now is that it seems to display some of Hoop’s most varied and interesting ideas yet. Whilst some of these ideas are executed in a way that doesn’t do them as much justice as it could, a handful of some of Hoop’s audacious concepts go over well. The opening title track, for instance, features some of the most inventive and interesting vocal parts from the singer to date. This song, which is largely based around a very simple 6/8 blues-inspired guitar pattern playing root notes, displays many different explorative vocal sections. The simple but harmonious um’s that introduce Hoop’s singing work well as a starting point from which the vocals continuously build up and explore new melodies. The progression of this track is purely focussed on the singing, with the guitar simply following along as layers of textured and beautiful vocal arrangements take the song to incredible heights. As a result of the bold concept of this cut, it stands out from the rest in the tracklisting and is an example of the kind of daring explorations that I think make Hoop’s best work shine.
The Lost Key has more of an air reminiscent of a more standard indie folk tune, with a simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar pattern accompanied with a clean guitar playing the main melody. As Hoop’s singing enters, the track takes a turn more unique to her style, with some interesting punctuations in the phrasing and unexpected chord changes that keep the listener intrigued. Hoop’s vocals over the chorus feature some more subtle harmonies, but they also take an unpredictable shape, with the melody continuously flowing and never remaining stagnant. Whilst the foundation of this song is a good one, once the first chorus has been and gone, the general progression of the rest of the track is rather predictable, with vocal harmonies being added as one would expect. The resulting track is an overall good one, but it doesn’t display the kind of gripping and constant evolution of the opener.
Simon Says is an interesting cut on Memories Are Now due to it featuring a distinct country influence unlike anything Hoop has put to tape previously. A muddy electric guitar is paired with a standard twangy acoustic to play the broken chord melody, with Hoop’s crooning on top fortifying the country element to this composition, especially given the humming lap steel guitar that swoops in towards its backend. The high and whiney harmony line over Hoop’s more standard root melody sounds great, but the unexpected and abrupt shift in tempo about 50 seconds into the song sees Simon Says take a much more folk-orientated turn, with Hoop’s duelling vocals sounding highly reminiscent of female folk duos like First Aid Kit. When the original country-esque section returns, it feels far more typical of Hoop’s usual work, with the twangy vocals substituted for more standard dual harmonies. Although an interesting decision to keep the clear country influence in the vox contained to just the first verse, I was really quite impressed by the singer-songwriter’s excursion into this new type of music and would liked to have seen more of the track feature such a well-applied influence.
Amongst the other stand-out tracks is Animal Kingdom Chaotic for featuring more strange vocal flourishes, but also some of the most interesting lyrical themes of any song on Memories Are Now, seemingly revolving around modern technology, or at least using it as a literary vehicle to portray a separate message. The refrain on this song features some fantastic call-and-answer vocals between Hoop’s oo’s and the central phrase of the song, “Computer says no”. Some more weird phrasing in the singing appears on this song, making it one of the strangest folk songs I’ve heard recently, but also summing up the numerous compelling ideas that seep through on Hoop’s latest record.
Memories Are Now proves to be perhaps Jesca Hoop’s most interesting and diverse release to date and there are a host of gripping and intriguing ideas conveyed on this record that go over rather well. This shows that Hoop is moving more towards the experimental direction that I would like to see from the artist. Although there are some outstanding highlights on this new studio effort, some of the tracks on the backend of the album, whilst good, don’t feature as much exploration as I would like to hear from Hoop. Then again, the mixture of both conventional and more experimental folk music may prove to be more appealing to others, but for me, I think Hoop shines best when she is attempting to bring to life her more obscure ideas.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10