Jesca Hoop takes her (second album’s) clothes off.
8.2 / 10
When Jesca Hoop announced her hopes to re-record her second album, Hunting My Dress, as a completely acoustic set, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Just a year earlier, she reworked her first record, Kismet, in a similar fashion; the songs were stripped bare, and some of them were even arranged differently to reflect how those songs are now played live. This comes to us via PledgeMusic, and it’s much more of a passion project than a cash-in. With Hoop’s last original album (2011’s The House That Jack Built, her trademark askew, angular folk music exploded into a variety of styles and genres. That album left me wondering where exactly she would go next — would she move on towards furthering this eclecticism? Or would she take a step back into her wild, untamed folk leanings? I don’t think Undress (or The Complete Kismet Acoustic) give us a straightforward answer on this. And as excited as I am about whatever followup to The House That Jack Built Jesca Hoop has in store, I really don’t mind revisiting Hunting My Dress‘s beautiful tapestries.
Check out our Earbuddy Interview with Jesca Hoop.
In fact, one of the things that felt off about Hunting My Dress the first time I heard it was how in-studio it felt. Jesca Hoop’s music feels wild. Not wild in the sense of long-haired hippies not showering, but wild like it just crawled out of the woods. There’s something ancient and primal about it. Even though Hunting My Dress is a great album, it always felt a little too careful and a little too reserved. Undress unmakes all of that. These acoustic songs aren’t sloppy (not by any stretch of the imagination), but the live recordings allow the arrangements to stretch their legs and breathe. These songs have stepped out of the studio, and they sound wonderful.
Many of these tracks are very faithful to the original recordings. With a few notable exceptions (we’ll get there — be patient), Undress does not deviate from the arrangements provided on Hunting My Dress. Is that disappointing? I suppose it could be if you were hoping for a brand new record, but many of these songs sound better than the original. For example, the intimacy and warmness of “Murder of Birds” is only enhanced by the pared-down production, and Guy Garvey (of Elbow, who duets here) is much more prominent. “The Kingdom”, with its shifting and rolling melody, benefits from the slightly looser feel. Even some of the tracks that you’d except to not translate well (“Feast of the Heart”) sound spectacularly alive and fresh. But two tracks sound as if they don’t belong in this collection: “Four Dreams” is still took electrified to mesh with Undress, and “City Bird” is a track appeared on Hoop’s Snowglobe EP rather than the normal source material here. If these tracks were removed, Undress would be all the stronger for having a better sense of cohesion.
But there are a few curveballs in Undress. “Whispering Light” — a song that I’ve long considered the best representative track of Hoop’s career — has Willy Mason taking over lead vocals. His deeper, baritone croon takes a while to warm up to, and it’s jarring at first. Even though this switcheroo isn’t as good as the original take, it’s an interesting and tasteful change. The other surprising track is “Hunting My Dress”, featuring Iron & Wine’s Sam Beal. It’s probably no surprise that Beal’s voice is beautiful here — he pretty much always delivers the goods — but his rendition with Hoop is a bit more traditional than the original song. On Undress, “Hunting My Dress” sounds like it could be a classic American folk song, and that’s not a knock against it. Hoop and Beal’s duet is excellent, and the casual approach of the song really highlights the pair’s vocals.
Hunting My Dress has been out for five years now, and in those five years, Jesca Hoop has lived with these songs on the road. In that time, these songs have changed and grown. Hunting My Dress was a strange record because it took archaic and feral themes and translated them onto a studio-set LP. Undress returns these songs back to the wild, and their teeth are sharper, and their coats are healthier, than we’ve ever seen them before.