Jesca Hoop's latest album is a breathtaking triumph: as starkly sparse as it is bravely bold. For the last ten years Hoop has been releasing solo albums under the guidance of industry guru Tony Berg and his Zeitgeist Studios, but here, for the first time, she has stepped away from that shadow to meticulously craft a fine batch of songs alongside her long-time co-producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple). At live shows Hoop appears with her voice and guitar, backed only by a second guitarist and occasionally some backing singers. The sound of Memories Are Now sticks close to that sound, stripped back to just the bare essentials, with sparse layers of percussion and the results are haunting. Title track 'Memories Are Now' is primarily Hoop's multi-layered vocal, soaked in reverb, backed by a hi-hat marking time and a lone guitar, fiercely plucking out a minimal chord sequence that's almost all bassline. It's an intense piece, vocals right in your face, leaving you no room to escape their direct melodies. The backing vocals float off in the background, pulling wisps of atmosphere along in their wake. And that guitar rises and falls in intensity, you can hear the grit and grain building up in its tone as the plucking becomes more forceful. It's a wonderfully powerful piece of music that does so much with so little, setting the scene perfectly for what's to come.
'The Lost Sky' brings in the second guitar, with the two parts playing beautifully off one another: one skipping along in a call and response rhythm, while the other spells out the chords, playing more of a bass guitar role. Again the vocals are so close, and intense, it's very affecting – melodies shifting unexpectedly around those guitar phrases, pulling you along in the intense introspection of a lyric about a love that turned cold: “And when we said the words 'I love you'/I said them 'cause they are true/Why would you say those words to me/If you could not follow through?” 'Animal Kingdom Chaotic' releases some of the tension that's been built up by the powerful opening songs. There's more playfulness in the piece, with guitars playing off-beat fluttery rhythms. There are several percussive devices in play, but they're all minimal and sparse, little wooden sounds and then deep gated-reverb hits that could be from a drum kit, a tambourine or even a dust bin. The playful beginning, weirdly riffing around the phrase, “computer says no”, which may be too familiar for some coming from an old Little Britain sketch, but the odd musical backing and, ultimately, the journey the song takes keeps the listener rapt. Moving from some playful otherworldly forgotten folk music to a dark mysterious place that wouldn’t have been out of place on Bowie's last album.
'Simon Says' sounds like traditional American folk, played on a gritty oil-drum guitar. Her multi-tracked close-harmony vocals recalling something far older, with some stringed instrument being harshly bowed rising up from time-to-time, at first sounding like an old train rushing past in the night and later sounding far more magical. 'Cut Connection' has something of a back-beat, but it sounds like it's played by clacking bits of wood together. It has more of a verse-chorus arrangement to begin with, the same pair of guitars playing cleverly off each other, built even further with ethereal, delay and reverb-soaked atmospherics. As things develop the guitars get dark and fuzzy and Hoop's vocal takes a step into to the background, chanting what sounds like some tribal mantra as the light back-beat becomes harder and fuller but no less unconventional sounding: an odd tribe of Jesca's bashing on whatever is to hand, it dissolves as these layers are stripped away and the focus shifts, making the layers left behind seem increasingly abstract until it eventually collapses entirely.
‘Songs of Old’ strips things back after the comparative density of the previous track. Again this sounds like American folk music of the past. With its unusual winding arrangement, and a flourish of gorgeous strings, this is probably where Jesca sounds most like Joanna Newsom, a comparison I’ve heard bandied about often. The refrain that sticks in my head from this track is a sort of wordless chorus, singing ‘hey-ya hey-ya-ya’. At first my mind went to OutKast, with their famous hit ‘Hey Ya’, but ultimately I ended up thinking this sounded like imagined Native American tribal chants – although this may entirely be me naively misappropriating. It does have a certain mystical gravitas to it, which is what’s leading my head in that direction. ‘Unsaid’ revels in gritty electric guitars and percussion that sounds like it could be someone bashing on a chest of drawers through a reverb unit. It’s clever as it speeds through an array of influences whilst surrendering to none of them. ‘Pegasi’ is, arguably, the most beautiful and most conventional piece on the record. It’s got an acoustic guitar, gently plucking, supporting the rising and falling melody. It sounds like a classic bit of folk, but it follows its own melodies rather than convention as it stretches a love story across a metaphorical night sky: “When we’re in love we’re alive/you’re the envy of the sky/every ember wants to light a supernova”.
Album closer ‘The Coming’ opens with a distant electric guitar soaked in reverb and softly warbling vibrato. Hoop’s Mormon roots come to mind as she tells a story about Jesus: what if he’d come today? Would he be turning in his crown of thorns? It reminds me of a lone Jeff Buckley, when he was at his most dramatic and atmospheric, conjuring universes with guitar and voice. The real gem in this one though is the rising chorus melody that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Bonnie Tyler power balled, or even Prince at his most bombastic and commercially successful. Stripped to just voice, guitar and a tonne of reverb it sounds somehow more authentic, certainly more moving than it would had it been treated with the dense 80s production of the aforementioned.
What's striking about Memories Are Now is Hoop's ability to create her own world that sits quite apart from any of her contemporaries, whilst at the same time crafting a set of very diverse songs. Whilst there are common elements of course, guitars and voices cover most of the ground on the record, it's Hoop's creativity and innovative skill that keeps the album from ever getting tired. There's always some new place to go, some other feeling to explore. This is minimalism writ large, as big, complex emotions are expressed alongside troubled themes of religion and the natural world set against the modern, technological one. Hoop is bold, up-front and unapologetic throughout. There's an infectious defiance in the sounds she makes, and there's comfort in that expression. I feel like this is an album I'll be listening to for years to come.