The title of Jesca Hoop’s debut album, Kismet, could easily refer to the twists of fate that led to its existence. Certainly it seems like destiny that Hoop would land a five-year tenure as nanny to the children of Tom Waits, whose influence is spattered generously across Kismet. Another bit of good fortune came in 2004, when Waits’s publisher, Lionel Conway sent a demo version of “Seed of Wonder” to the highly influential radio host Nic Harcourt at Los Angeles station KCRW, who helped make the song one of the most requested in the station’s history. Without an official release to her name, Hoop was tapped to open for the Polyphonic Spree during its summer 2007 tour.
And although the planets may have aligned to expose Hoop’s curious muse to the world, the brilliance of Kismet rests squarely on her shoulders. Hoop is easily the most creative singer-songwriter to emerge from the Los Angeles environs in years. Many of these songs were written years before she moved to the hills of L.A., and they sound way older than that. The cabaret melodies of “Silverscreen” and “Out the Back Door” summon the flapper bobs and cigarette holders of 1920s Germany; “Enemy” and “Havoc in Heaven” reach back even further, to ancient Celtic folk music.
From any other singer, Kismet might have been a novel but soulless pastiche of retro sounds. Instead each song fleshes out a world of Hoop’s own creation, inhabited by her shape-shifting voice, which veers from a Bjork-like impishness to the wistful jazz phrasings of the great torch singers to a rapturous pure alto. Tough as it is to imagine a single person tackling a pagan call to arms (“Do not trust the guise of a woman old and wise/ For truly she is the white bone demon” from “Havoc in Heaven”) and a moving elegy to New Orleans (“Love Is All We Have”), Hoop nails ’em both.
One of the best songs on the album, “Intelligentactile 101,” is sung from the point of view of a gestating baby that can’t wait to be born so it can touch stuff (“Now I’m swingin’ from the stars/ And an umbilical cord/ My toe, oh my toe/ I want your fingers on my toe”). No surprise she sounds so comfortable as a fetus — Kismet bursts with an omni-directional creativity you don’t often find in grown-up humans.
Eccentric as it is, Kismet wants to be a pop record. Co-producers Damian Anthony and Tony Berg coat a number of songs in heavy drum tracks and vocal layering, even bringing along the Police’s Stewart Copeland to supply beats on a revamped “Seed of Wonder.” Hoop is at her most effective when her voice rings out sans obstruction, as on the jarringly beautiful “Enemy.” But if it takes a snare drum, bass guitar, and vocoder to get Hoop’s pagan pop on the radio, bring it on. All the glossifying production tricks don’t diminish the spectral power of Kismet one bit.