When Hooverphonic published Blue Wonder Power Milk in 1998, fans of their previous effort were confused. The band had found a new lead singer, but apparently lost any sense of a musical definition. They weren't trip-hop anymore, but what exactly were they? Dream pop? Ambient? The release of The Magnificent Tree didn't do much to answer those questions, and it's unlikely that their new release Jackie Cane will either.
The truth is, for better or worse, the trip-hop genre is currently dead, and Hooverphonic has moved on. Genrefication itself is disappearing as musicians blend more and more styles (go ahead, put Beth Orton into a genre), and either Hooverphonic figured this out long ago, or they just happen to enjoy recording whatever music they feel like. The problem with crossing genres is that while Milk and Tree were solid efforts, they weren't cohesive albums, jumping from song to song without any continuity. Hooverphonic has solved the problem on their latest release.
Jackie Cane expands upon the song of the same name from Tree. It's the story of a lounge singer catapulted into stardom. Success, and the troubled relationship with her twin sister, drive her toward insanity. Jackie quits show business and returns home to attempt reconciliation, but is poisoned by her sister, who then commits suicide. Cute.
The album is thus a concept album, or, as the band calls it, a "pop musical". Many of the songs do in fact sound as though they were designed for a stage performance, particularly "Day After Day" and "The World Is Mine". Much like Pink Floyd, the full impact is impressed upon the listener by hearing the whole album. That's not to say that the songs can't survive on their own. It's exactly the opposite, in fact. There is very little track blending; most of the songs could exist as singles. To hear the story of Jackie Cane, however, one must listen to the whole album.
While telling the story, Hooverphonic shift seamlessly from ballads to trip-hop to electronica to what can only be described as dance numbers. In the lush "Nirvana Blue", Jackie takes a leap of faith and reaches after her dreams, "without knowing if my parachute will save me". The track features lead singer Geike Arnaert with a simple piano and string accompaniment, and is one of the more beautiful Hooverphonic songs to date. The song is juxtaposed between "Human Interest", an epic in the vein of Tree's "Out Of Sight", and the campy "The World Is Mine", the first single from the album.
"The World Is Mine" stands out as the most "musical" of the lot, as Jackie confidently struts her stuff on stage, singing "The world is mine/I won't stop this time/'Cause the world is mine and I'm feelin' so divine!" This is the pinnacle of her success, triumphant brass and percussion running wild, but it all crashes down as "Jackie's Delirium" takes over. Slow, brooding, reminiscent of Massive Attack, "Delirium" features a droning sitar sample, a voice moaning in agony, and a childlike voice mocking Jackie, chanting over and over. "Who's going insane? Jackie Jackie Cane!" The effect of the two tracks is remarkable.
As with The Magnificent Tree, Hooverphonic expands on the typical trip-hop instrumentation. The electronic elements and samples are still there, but are accompanied by horns, strings (the London Session Orchestra), a harmonica, a kalimba, and even a slide whistle. The only drawbacks to "Jackie Cane" are the lyrics.
Hooverphonic has never been a group that amazed the listener lyrically, and unfortunately they haven't progressed to the point where their words can be delivered without a least a groan or a smirk from the listener. While simple words and metaphors deliver on songs like "Shampoo" ("You're the shampoo in my eyes/you are the salt in my wounds"), dealing with Jackie's death in "The Kiss" in the same way doesn't. "Death may seem something nasty, but it belongs to me and you/Don't try to avoid your destiny, accept this kiss with dignity." It's not cringeworthy, but it leaves something to be desired. The song however, and the album, ultimately succeed because of the songcrafting and in spite of the lyrics.