[12 June 2007]
Here in the aughts, many terms compete to encompass the unwieldy genre to which Jana Hunter’s music belongs. Although assumed to be interchangeable, these labels don’t feel like they’re describing the same sounds. “Freak folk” has been rejected by the freakiest of the folkies, but plenty of ‘em play some freaky ass folk. Still, maybe we can find a better alternative for Jana Hunter. To hang the banner of “naturalismo” over her cryptic songs (as genre leader Devendra Banhart would ask us to do) would feel like a slight. It’s a silly tag, and Hunter’s sound ain’t clownin’ around. Psych-folk doesn’t apply, either. She won’t leave your mind swirling with paisleys, and there are no sitars or fuzz-toned guitars in the mix. The wide-reaching indie-folk moniker could suffice, but it corrals too many dissimilar acts under one big umbrella.
“New Weird America”, another style name that’s been tossed around the last few years, is perhaps the most applicable. Hailing from Texas, Jana’s an American, all right. And her material is pretty weird. It’s also more deeply connected to the Old, Weird America that Greil Marcus described in his classic book. Marcus discussed the progression from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music to Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Tugging at that loose and ragged strand of sound, Jana Hunter has discovered her own strange USA.
Her first album, 2005’s The Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom, was either discomfitingly disturbed and unpolished, or beautifully bleak and immediate, depending on one’s sensibilities, or mood on a given day, or susceptibility to online hipster ravings. Ranging from the haunted abstraction of “All the Best Wishes” to the lazy, pretty, Gillian Welch-like Appalachian folk of “Have You Got My Money”, the record’s variety was its boon and its drawback. Having an appetite for both ends of this spectrum in the same sitting is, for many, a rare occasion. We critics can praise the artist’s lack of compromise, but that doesn’t mean that even the average indie music fan will appreciate the full scope of the album.
On There’s No Home, however, Jana Hunter presents a much more cohesive listen. Her sophomore disc strays away from the pure oddness that imbued Heirs of Doom with its off-kilter feel. Which isn’t to say that Hunter has gone all normal on us. Instead, she has found a way to carry that same atmosphere into a set of slow, sad, and lovely songs that are grounded in the deep tradition of rural American music (but not “Americana”). On “Regardless”, which ebbs and flows on the lap steel of Will Adams, Hunter is mining the same rich veins that fingerstyle guitar legend John Fahey excavated 40 years ago, finding ghosts and gold. Adams helps out again on “Valkyries”, a song with a nice, light bounce in its step. As the record’s free promo download, it works well to accurately encapsulate the average feel of the album, although “Vultures” is much more immediately appealing, as a bit of sunshiny pop peaks through the clouds.
“Babies”, meanwhile, could be an indie rock lullaby, with its gentle vocal hooks. Nonetheless, the cut maintains the CD’s codeine daydream vibe and fits in well. “Oracle” is a twilit back porch sing-along, with multi-instrumentalist Matthew Brownlie lending an added layer of vocals. Not that Jana needs the help. She multi-tracks her own voice beautifully to become a choir of “Sirens”. On “Bird”, she sings, “Oh god, I’m so tired”. But that’s okay, because she ends the album with the delta wave-inducing title track, ready to lull her listeners, and maybe herself, off to a deep and dreamful sleep.
There’s No Home is something of a sleeper. It may disappoint those looking for another dose of The Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom. Hopefully, though, her first album’s fans will come to appreciate this much more mature work. Hunter has stripped away the artifice of freakiness for its own sake and found what feels like her true voice. Fortunately for everyone, this voice is mighty fine. With it, the young singer-songwriter does much more than offer an odd diversion for indie rock fans; instead, she adds to the tradition of American folk artists who have sought only to express themselves and to tell the tales of the world around them. On There’s No Home, Jana Hunter helps keep America weird.