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Two Wholly Different Reviews of Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom 

Wherein the Writer Enjoyed the Album:

Jana 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 admit 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.

So 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 them again.

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.

"Laughing 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.)

So 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)