[13 May 2013]
Dungeonesse is a self-proclaimed attempt at making an R&B/pop album by a pair of indie rockers. Jenn Wasner is the singer of the up and coming band Wye Oak, while Jon Ehrens is known, at least a little bit, for his project the Art Department. The Art Department claimed to be an obscure ‘80s band from Carson City, Nevada, whose lost album resurfaced on the internet back in 2008. In reality, Ehrens recorded the tracks and created the fake backstory to go with them. Dungeonesse is not nearly that high concept, but it seems like more than a throwaway side project for the duo.
If anything, this album shows how difficult it really is to make a successful dance-pop/R&B record. There is an art to creating a track that has personality, a good beat, and a hook that will burrow into your head and just stay there for days. The best pop producers capture all those things and then find the right performer who can sell the song, either based on their existing persona or finding a new singer with the charisma to break out. Rock bands, particularly indie rock bands, no longer seem particularly tuned in to that process, and with the general collapse of the major labels, there aren’t too many executives, producers, and A&R people out there breaking rock music through to the mainstream.
Which isn’t to say bands like Wye Oak can’t be successful. With indie-rock oriented websites, revenue from selling songs to commercials, and savvy touring, there’s still a place for new rock music out there in the musical landscape. But that version of success is increasingly removed from pop music and what passes for general audience hits in the ‘10s, the emergence of Mumford & Sons and their folk-rock coattail riders notwithstanding.
This brings us back around to Dungeonesse, and what a weak attempt their album is at capturing what makes current mainstream pop music work. I’ve no doubt the duo share a love of R&B and Top 40 music, but Dungeonesse has a difficult time recreating that type of music. The band starts with Wasner’s voice, and her versatile, full-bodied delivery certainly works in a pop/R&B setting. Wasner is front and center on most of the tracks, and she sings the lyrics with conviction, no matter how dopey they are (“I mean this from the heart / I’m gonna drive you crazy”). In that respect, Dungeonesse certainly succeeds at making pop. Fans of Wasner’s voice in general will be pleased with her singing here.
Unfortunately the actual music that Wasner and Ehrens are making leaves a lot to be desired. This is too often subpar synth-pop, lacking in hooks and weirdly treble-heavy. Certain songs feel like throwbacks to the early ‘90s. “Show You” has an irregular synth percussion beat and omnipresent slow-moving synth chords. Wasner’s big vocals on top just give the song the impression that it’s imitating cheesy European dance-pop from that period. The slow jam “Nightlight” sounds like an R&B track caught in the transition between the ‘80s and ‘90s, with cascading synth piano lines and extremely tinny, artificial synth percussion sounds.
The beat-heavy “Cadillac” is built around a sample of Wasner saying the word “cadillac”, annoyingly chopped and screwed into a repetitive refrain. To increase the ‘90s feel, guest rapper DDm’s nasal delivery is weirdly reminiscent of Cypress Hill’s B Real. But at least “Cadillac” has something resembling a low end. “Drive You Crazy” has a strong melody, despite the goofy lyrics, and something of an interesting bassline. But that bass is buried underneath the song’s three or four chirpy synth parts. You’d think with a focus on creating music with R&B and modern pop in mind that Dungeonesse would place some emphasis on the bass. But the majority of these songs feature high-pitched synth parts and tinny percussion.
When Wasner and Ehrens actually do focus on bass, the songs fare better. “Private Party” has a good beat and a solid bass part, but it lacks a compelling melody. More successful are the album’s final two songs. “Anywhere You Are” has a very cool pair of synth lines giving it melodic hooks, but wafter the bass and beat enter, 50 seconds into the track, the low end drives the rest of the song. It helps that the percussion is lower-pitched than a lot of the beats on the album and that the bass line isn’t buried under the treble synths. Wasner, for a change, doesn’t have to carry the whole song with her voice, so her singing wraps around the music instead of sitting on top of it, trying so hard to sell it herself. Album closer “Soon” isn’t quite as strong as the previous song, but it has a wistful quality that works well to wrap things up. It helps that there’s a good chorus for Wasner to sing. “Our love’s not enough / For the two of us to live for / So we’ve gotta give it up” isn’t the deepest sentiment ever written, but she sells the bittersweetness. Dungeonesse throws in a nice mid-tempo beat and unobtrusive synths and the song works quite well.
Dungeonesse mostly ends up feeling like a misfire. Wasner certainly has the vocal chops to pull off this kind of music, but the general lack of hooks and the weird choice to focus so much on treble sounds holds it back. The album’s final two songs seem to indicate a path for the band if they choose to go forward, but this record feels like a work in progress that needed more work.