has had some downright fascinating job descriptions in her time. Among them: Counselor at a hardcore wilderness survival program for troubled kids, backup singer for Peter Gabriel, and nanny for Tom Waits’ children. Any single one of those gigs would make for at least a few killer stories at a party, but the 36-year-old also has a rather accomplished resume as a singer-songwriter, with five previous releases to her name.
Her new LP, The House That Jack Built, trades in many of the more coarse and pastoral elements of her previous releases in favor of a heavier concentration of pristine, electronic-augmented pop. “Hospital (Win Your Love)” is bubbly and upbeat, with a backing that sounds like the most upbeat recent-era Dust Brothers production; in “Peacemaker”, her voice is digitally tweaked until it sounds inhuman. Examples like these are far cries from the offbeat folk arrangements that once drew comparisons to Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom.
Songs on previous albums have been criticized as being a bit too weird for their own good, but at points here she seems to be adjusting herself too far in the other direction. “Born To” manages to marry both worlds: propulsive rhythms and a radio-friendly, soaring chorus don’t outshine the intricacies—and eccentricities—of her voice. She sings over darker textures in the unsettling-yet-beautiful “When I’m Asleep”, a chorus of voices howling behind her words, commanding listeners to “go back to sleep.” The lightly fingerpicked “D.N.R.” deals with her relationship with her late father, touching on a deep, emotional vein that’s unheard elsewhere on the record.
While she’s garnered acclaim from some big names—Waits has endorsed her music, in typical Waits-ian obtuseness, as “like going swimming in the lake at night”—her unusual folk-pop remains semi-obscure. Perhaps ironing out some of her stranger qualities sets up this record to find a more mainstream audience for the singer, but the results are too uneven. The glossy pop songs will disappoint fans who liked her more unusual aspects, while the weird bits may put off the more casual listener.
Essential Songs: “When I’m Asleep”