the Writer Enjoyed the Album:
Hunter is apparently the mysterious
"Power Woman," that elusive feminine force that guides Devendra
Banhart and Andy Cabic's new Gnomonsong label. She is also the first artist to
record on Gnomonsong, bringing together 10 years worth of home-recorded tracks
in a soulful, gorgeous and occasionally disturbing debut full-length.
Vocally, Hunter sounds very much like Karen
Dalton, one of Banhart's three early inspirations (the others being Vashti
Bunyan and Judy Henske). This is to say, she has a velvety tone with a low
range that extends beyond most women's, combined with an unexpectedly childlike
higher register. She also sings with an unforced genuineness that warms and
deepens every track. Her voice, poised as Banhart's often is between blues and
folk, gives a burnished glow to songs that range from comfortingly traditional
to wildly original. Through the murk and echo of home recording, she sounds on
"All the Best Wishes" like a supernatural creature, haunting and
lovely and ineffable. Unaccompanied by instruments, she sings harmonies and
descants with herself here, the melodic line blending with slow-changing sung
chords and high-noted counterpoints. It is an unearthly and mysterious way into
a very spiritual album, setting the tone for the rest of the tracks.
With "The New Sane Scramble," we pick
up Hunter's eccentric guitar playing, a rhythmic but unusual repetitive pattern
that adds tension to her singsong vocals. There's also a trace of the violin
that Hunter's been playing since age 9, twisted into a wild skirls of
accompaniment. Yet though the track is ornamented with instruments, it feels
bare and essential, with only the bones showing through. The same might be said
for "Christmas," all jazz-inflected upright bass and blues vocals.
Hunter's voice tracks the bass line, pausing in the same places and creating
dark caverns for meditation. The handclaps of "Laughing and Crying"
and the swooning strings of "Farm, Ca." seem like a relief after all
this intensity, yet even these fluid offerings are shadowed with strong, dark
emotions. The schoolyard chant of "Laughing and Crying" hides a
ferocious worldview, limned with words like "Laughing and crying/ Are the
same thing/ Tearing at something/ With claws you can't see." Similarly,
the sweet country violin of "Farm, Ca." (which first appeared on the
"New Folk" compilation, The Golden Apples of the Sun, that Banhart put
together for Arthur magazine last year) wraps around unfathomable sadness, a
melancholy that goes beyond words and seeps through your skin. Only the final
cut, the odd and endearing "K," seems unconflictedly joyful, with its
canned drum-machine beat and electro keyboard line.
Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom is intense, honest and
individual. It's the kind of music that is often made in isolation, by
distinctive and talented individuals with no one telling them what to do.
Paradoxically, it's just this sort of music that draws people together, as we
discover that what's unique about one artist is actually a little piece of us
all. Jana Hunter may be Power Woman, or she may not, but there's no denying she
has made an extremely powerful album here.
by Jennifer Kelly (www.neumu.com)
Wherein He Did Not:
I've been having a hard time with this album. I will
that when I first read about Ms. Hunter, I assumed I would hate her music
(describing someone's voice as "a singular vehicle that traces louche
jazz-tinged smoke rings" is pretty much guaranteed to turn me off). Now,
having listened to this record many times, I can't say that I hate it, but I
can't really say that I like it - overall, as a cohesive work - either.
Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom (we'll call it BUHOD from here
on out) gets off to a very
slow start, with the über-lo-fi "All best wishes," featuring slow,
bluesy vocals (I guess you could call them louche and jazz-tinged) over a
simple bass + vocal backing track. It makes for interesting background music,
but doesn't really go anywhere. Most of the songs follow in this mode, with a
simple guitar or vocal line repeated under a somber melody, sometimes with
other strange noises (or mumbled male vocals) thrown in.
that's my overall impression of this record: it's OK, I
guess, but for the most part the songs don't feel like they're going anywhere
or doing anything; they don't feel to me like their creator really put much of
herself into them. Yes, she's got a nice, strong, unaffected voice (which is
really quite refreshing in these ClapyourCocoHandsSayNewsome days we're living in), and yes, the
sounds all mesh together, but they don't cry out to be heard. After many
listens, I haven't gotten much more out of these songs than I did on my first
listen. And once I've finished this review, I probably won't listen to most of
Except here's the
thing: There are three great songs on
here. I guess if you compose an album of thirteen songs written over the course
of 10 years, you should get a couple gems out of the process, and Ms. Hunter
has. While most of BUHOD will henceforth be heard no more by me, "Laughing and
Crying," "Restless," and "K" are some damn fine tunes,
and will, I'm sure, earn places on mix CDs for a while to come.
and Crying" is 50 seconds of just
handclaps and male/female vocals. It took a while to win me over, but after a
certain number of listens I found myself waiting for that one part of the song
where the two voices split off and go into a lovely harmony. And yeah: hand claps.
I know, sounds precious, but it totally works. "Restless" is just a
gorgeous song, I don't know how else to put it. Simple guitar chords,
intertwining vocals (OK, so I'm a sucker for the harmonies), and a nice little
extra guitar part on the chorus. This is one of those songs that you want to
keep on repeat for a while before moving on to the next one. But then you do..
. and you have couple more dirges to wade through before you get to album
closer "K," the most out-of-place song on the record. After 30-odd
minutes of lo-fi guitar and tape hiss, out of nowhere comes this dancey little
number, starting with what I'm pretty sure is a Casio drum machine pre-set with
some weird delay noises thrown on top. I can picture Ms. Hunter hitting a new
key on the Casio for each chord change as the song goes along, but that still
doesn't spoil its charm. This song has a sweet, lilting melody, and more of
those harmonies! (This time in the form of some sweet rising and falling
"ohhhhhhhhs" on the chorus.)
there you have it: A not-so-great album (especially for
one that took 10 years to create) which features three excellent songs. This is
why they made iTunes, I guess, and I highly recommend you go buy those three
songs right now.
by Lee Klein (www.sctas.com)