Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane (2002)

There's been a tremendous turnout of concept albums so far in the 21st century, but rock operas have been few and far between. As the current decade draws to a close, narrative albums are making a grand return, with offerings by both Green Day and The Decemberists this year alone, but the musical atmosphere wasn't always this fertile. At the turn of the 21st century modern music was, by and large, still struggling against the awkward spell of the late-nineties. Now, in this much-improved musical environment, is an opportune time to examine one of the first rock operas of the 21st century: Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane.

Hooverphonic is a Belgian group that emerged in the mid-nineties as trip hop swept Europe. Trip hop's already experimental fusion of electro and hip hop encouraged further mutation and the band dove right in. By their second album, Hooverphonic were hard at work cross-pollinating and maturing their European electropop sound with myriad other musical styles. The band's first three albums were released in the States with some success, (I first heard them on a Volkswagen commercial) but just as they were making headway Sony pulled their US distribution. Their forth album, Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane, is a masterpiece that never made it to North American shores.

In Jackie Cane, Hooverphonic draw from the theatrics of 1960s film scores to illustrate their unique rendition of a classic tragedy: the rise and fall of a would-be starlet. Jackie wants to be a famous singer and she leaves behind her twin sister and the ramshackle part of town she grew up in to peruse her dream. Her twin feels betrayed and abandoned by her other half. While she sits alone, at home, Jackie becomes a huge success - but her fame takes its toll. She spirals into substance abuse and returns to her sister, with whom she hopes to find comfort. Jackie’s sister never wants them to be separated again. To ensure this, she serves Jackie a poisoned meal and kills herself. It’s been suggested that the album's narrative is from Jackie’s perspective as she reminisces in her dying moments.

Much of the verification of these details comes from a strange piece of writing behind the disc in the jewelcase. It’s full of illegible and sometimes missing words as well as odd grammatical errors:

The album originated from a track called “Jackie Cane” which appeared on Hooverphonic’s previous album, The Magnificent Tree. It illustrates in brief, the rise and fall of Jackie’s career. ("Jackie Cane was everybody's sugar/ she gave it all wherever it took her.") The song wasn’t included on the Jackie Cane album, but serves as an over-arching introduction of sorts. With Jackie Cane, Hooverphonic play up their penchant for string arrangements, James Bond-esque guitar riffs, and psychedelia as well as add jazz and Latin influences to their sound. The result is a collection of Broadway-worthy ballads and dance numbers, such as "Sometimes" and "The World is Mine", next to dark, hallucinogenic tracks like "Jackie's Delirium and "Shampoo". Jackie Cane's extreme, but cohesive variance in sound and style, mixed with its impressive, downright cinematic narrative, make for a phenomenal experience. If there is a hall of rock operas somewhere in the cosmos, Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane deserves a prestigious place among its grand displays.

When listening to the album I like to add "Jackie Cane" as the first track, acting as sort of an opening titles to the full narrative experience. Another addition to the chronology of the album is "The Contract", which was a b-side on the “Sometimes” single. The track has a very specific place in the album’s narrative - between “Human Interest” and “Nirvana Blue” where Jackie signs her contract to stardom. "The Contract" also offers some meta commentary on the act of making a concept album: "did you really think about creating/ a masterpiece rarely presents/ itself at the door of your imagination/ accept these conditions even if there's really not much to accept."

The intricacies of Jackie Cane's narrative don't readily present themselves. Many elements of the primary story such as Jackie's rise to fame and her decline into drug addiction and/or madness are easy to pick out, but key aspects such as Jackie's twin sister and the actuality of her murder are less clear. Below is my ideal track listing for the album ("Jackie Cane" and "The Contract" included) with my notes on the story’s chronology as I've come to interpret it:

1) "Jackie Cane" An opus to the main character telling of her rise and fall as a starlet.
2) "Sometimes" Addresses the rift growing between the sisters due to Jackie’s desire to become a singer and her eventual departure.
3) "One" Discusses the bond between the twins, but also their duality. It’s in both Jackie and her twin’s perspectives and supports the theory that the album is looking back from the point of Jackie's death. "I had to leave but now I'm coming back/ we had to see/ you're white and I'm black."
4) "Human Interest" Jackie struggles with doing what it takes to become a star and bracing herself for paying "the dreadful price of success."
5) "The Contract" Jackie finds herself in a record executive’s office presented with the conflict of signing a part of herself away.
6) "Nirvana Blue" The cathartic moment before Jackie takes the plunge into making her big break. "I just jumped out in the open/ without knowing my parachute will save me."
7) "The World is Mine" Jackie’s rise to fame as a media darling.
8) "Jackie’s Delirium" A hallucinogenic nightmare as Jackie’s drug abuse and neurosis creep up on her.
9) "Sad Song" The depression and fallout of Jackie’s drug addictions leads to an unsuccessful stint in a California rehab clinic.
10) "Day After Day" Jackie is let out of rehab, but it didn't work. She now hides in the "organized chaos" of either her actual house or the "house" of her career. The track references an earlier Hooverphonic song, “Pink Fluffy Dinosaurs” as a drug metaphor.
11) "Shampoo" Jackie realizes that her sister might be a means of filling the void that’s grown inside of her. Perhaps, even though they're at odds, they’re family and they need each other. "You're the thorn in my side/ you ache and ache and ache/ still I can't live without/ you being near." In the lyrics booklet the song's title is framed, “in the SHAMPOO lies the truth”.
12) "Others Delight" Called “preparing OTHERS DELIGHT” in the booklet. Entirely from the twin’s perspective. She discusses her fractured feelings since Jackie’s departure. "I knew that you would leave/ your goal was more important than my grief." The word “preparing” in the extended title alludes to “The Last Supper.”
13) "Opium" Jackie rationalizes that devoting herself fully to her music might be how she can pull herself out of her addictions. "Music is opium for free." There is a chance for her to redeem herself.
14) "The Last Supper" This song is from the twin's perspective. Jackie’s twin poisons a meal she makes for Jackie. She hopes to end Jackie's torment: "let me save you from this unbearable hell." The song mentions Park G├╝ell, which, though it seems unlikely, might be the setting of this song. This would place Jackie’s home in Barcelona.
15) "The Kiss" Written as “THE KISS of death” in the booklet. The twin kisses her dying/dead sister goodbye. There's implications that she ends her own life somehow was well.

Jackie Cane is near impossible to find in US stores. Fortunately, the Internet is to the rescue. Not only is the album readily listenable on various sites, but it's not too hard to purchase either. Though it used to be a pricey import, Amazon now offers the album at a reasonable price and the US iTunes offers some (but not all) of the tracks. Finding the "Sometimes" single is trickier. It's available on ebay or Amazon from time to time and the French iTunes store has the single for download. Also, there’s a 14-track Japanese edition of Jackie Cane that supposedly has the track on it. A thread on Hooverphonic’s forum has details on finding the song. For additional Jackie Cane fun, many of the tracks on Jackie Cane also have lounge style revisions with an orchestra on the band’s fifth album, Sit Down and Listen to Hooverphonic, and there's a French lyric version of “One” called “Tu Es Moi”.

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- Cap

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