The first time I ever experienced Jesca Hoop’s music was at a concert this past November in Atlanta. I found in myself a sort of abashed disappointment that I’d never bothered to listen to her before. After that show, I went home and bought all three of her albums in order to listen to them from the beginning. Although I’m much more attached to Hunting My Dress on the whole, The House that Jack Built is Jesca’s most recent album, and it shows definite signs of progression not only in personal subject matter but in the way the music forms a coherent picture of an underlying theme.
1. Born To
Opening the album with this track was a bold move. After a few initial seconds of what sounds like guitar-tuning accompanied by the sounds of muttering in the background (possibly in the recording studio?) the guitar takes off, only to blend into Jesca’s voice as she almost calmly describes the plight of a young girl’s family troubles. The beginning of the chorus overtakes the ending note from the preceding lyrics every time, making the track feel smooth yet decidedly urgent. As an opening track, this song works very well: it is insistent and left me hanging on eagerly, hoping the album would proceed in similar fashion.
2. Pack Animal
This song is muted, particularly when compared to the first track. It focuses more on Jesca’s voice itself, rather than how her voice works with the music surrounding it. This track stands out because of its simplicity: it’s the shortest one on the album, and it has simple repetitive lyrics and a very basic melody. I feel certain that it was meant to serve as a refresher between the heavier tracks immediately before and after it. The lyrics express the isolation experienced during the creative process. The burden of loneliness is perfectly encapsulated in this mild and almost rueful song.
3. Peacemaker
This track begins with a busy beat, and the whole song strikes the ear as immediately complex, especially when compared to the track before it. The sound either of a howl or possibly some sort of Ancient Greek horn underscores Jesca’s voice at several points, and the song is sexy in a hard, earthen way, alternately full of sensuous growls and almost-triumphant (or, alternately, orgasmic) high notes.
4. Hospital
Easily one of the catchiest songs on the album. Jesca described this song (rightly) as “pretentious”: it tells the story of a small child whose only method of garnering sympathy or love from her parents is by hurting herself. I can’t listen to this song without thinking of its music video, which features a lot of frenzied pop-dancing and bright colors. Consider this a song an anthem for anyone who’s ever yearned for a black eye.
5. The House that Jack Built
The opening guitar riff of this song gives me chills every time. This song takes all of the emotions of neglect and yearning that were present in Hospital, slows them down, makes them less saccharine. It’s a song of family and pain, and while it’s only comprised of vocals and one guitar, it’s different than Pack Animal—it seems fuller and more important. The high notes that Jesca hits in the last 45 seconds of the song sound less like singing and more like crying—and although the crying is beautiful and musical, it’s a reminder that this is still undeniably a song of lament.
6. Ode to Banksy
Ode to Banksy is definitely a lighter track than most of the songs preceding it. This track challenges my idea of what this album should sound like at this point. With all the interaction between instruments, vocals, and echoing vocals, it’s very busy, and at points it’s nigh impossible to even figure out what Jesca is saying. The lyrics may be evasive, but with multiple listens and a little understanding of context, they can work their way into familiarity. This track feels to me as if it came from a different album entriely. It is far more open and happy, and its subject matter doesn’t quite fall in line among the rest of the album’s themes of familial strife and pain. Still, maybe a diverse track like this is just was the record needed at this point.
7. Dig this Record
This fuzzy vocals and slow tambourine-backbeat of this song give it a sort of stickiness. It feels like a song you should dance around a campfire to. It seems to serve as Jesca’s celebration of her own music: “Dig this record now, dig it like you never dug one before ‘cuz it’s so far out […] You know this poor world couldn’t put a price on the likes of me.” I especially admire the way the song peters out with the sound of a train’s whistle melding neatly into the last sung note.
8. D.N.R
Similar to the track The House that Jack Built, this track paints a picture of a father. It attempts to tackle the issue that countless authors and artists have struggled with for lifetimes: how to pick up the pieces and go on following a parent’s death. Jesca sings this one with a clear voice and an honesty that’s often difficult to come by in songs highly informed by emotional events. The entire song is haunted with the memory of a struggle, and ends with a near-whispered refrain of “D.N.R., D.N.R…” Do not resuscitate. Do not resuscitate.
9. Deeper Devastation
This song hangs on to the quiet slowness of the one before it: gone are the fast, high notes from earlier in the album. It masterfully employs the occasional use of a backup-chorus that at once highlights and rounds out Jesca’s lone voice. I had to wonder what could have happened to make Jesca write such an embittered and wounded piece, because the lyrics hammer deeply and insistently into the listener’s brain. This is not a song to be either sung or listened to lightly.
10. When I’m Asleep
I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the use of this track to round out the album. The final third of the song contains what I can only describe as a “drop”: there’s a sudden jump in the tempo, verses are shouted, and the beat is re-energized. Rather than letting you complacently steep in the emotional well of the darker songs that came before, When I’m Asleep wakes you up, just before it drops you off at the end of the album with a few lingering drum-beats.