Jana Hunter’s first two albums, on Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic’s label Gnomonsong, were a beguiling mixture of whimsy, philosophy, sadness, and dream-state meditation. Her singing voice will not reach out and grab anyone with histrionics (she’s not a Joanna Newsom or Mariah Carey type), but subtly casts quite a spell, carrying more emotion than you realize at first. It has tenderness, too, and strange poetry. I don’t know if “freak folk” is still being used to describe artists in the circles Hunter runs in, but if it is, it shouldn’t be. She does seem like the independent spirit that that term “freak” might be implying (in 2006 she was part of attempt to do an east coast tour by sailboat, for example), but her music reaches out beyond just folk, taking in torch balladry, campfire chants, and soft psychedelia.
That is even more true of Lower Dens, Hunter’s new band. Their debut album Twin-Hand Movement will never be mistaken for folk, no matter what definition of folk you’re using. It is running with the strains of American eccentric/bohemian music that the “freak-folk” label (and the equally unhelpful references to the “new weird America”) was meant to evoke. It’s also visceral wall-of-sound music, going for the big, hammering waves of sound associated with another buzzword, shoegaze and especially My Bloody Valentine. Lower Dens are working with the stoned blues and gently strange balladry of Hunter’s other albums and blowing it up widescreen, staking out a huge presence through layered guitars and a rhythm section that gathers suspense through playing that shapes and soothes in equal measure. In a word: control.
The expansive side of their sound evokes big American landscapes, earth and sea, fitting lyrics like those in “Tea Lights”, where Hunter sings of seas and lighthouses before meditating on the phrase “tea lights in the sand”—meditate in feeling, that is, without any New Age gimmicks, and with some awfully tuneful melody lines.
Hunter’s voice is beguiling. Keeping it lower in the sound mix, as they do across the album, accentuates that quality, but only because the music itself is so beguiling, and matches so well the enigmatic and bittersweet qualities of her singing and songs. A song like “A Dog’s Dick” is at once comfortable and completely rapturous, with big, cinematic moments where the bassline stops time, while the percussion frames it in a classically pop way. Then the guitars come in searing, building the song’s intensity to the next plateau. The musicianship throughout the album is fierce, put under a spotlight during the instrumental “Holy Water”, but really on display throughout, working a certain haunted magic that melds perfectly with Hunter’s own.
On Twin-Hand Movement, there’s darkness that in the most driving moments recalls Factory Reccords even, though Hunter’s presence is always more intimate and personal, like an enchanting storyteller at some late-night campfire, weaving diaries, poems, history, ghost story sea chanteys, and mourning together in one mysterious gesture.
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