Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom
he debut album by Texan Jana Hunter isn’t so much a debut as it is a shrink-wrapped shout of “finally!” For the most part, Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom has been floating around and finding people for at least a year and maybe more (with some songs on the record over a decade old). Hunter has been producing handmade copies of her songs for years to sell at shows, send to friends, etc. In fact, she herself is a handmade woman in many ways. Recording when, where, and however she can, Hunter’s sonics lack the production qualities that have become so ingrained in the consciousness of most music lovers. But at the same time, Hunter’s two- and four-track recordings that often take place in her van and emerge as tape-hissed bliss folk are not an attempt at mimicking the past or trying to reproduce the anarchic. The sound quality, the pureness of heart and voice, the warbly song structures are what make Jana Hunter so indelibly unique, so “of the moment” and, ultimately, such a “lo-fi” phenomenon.
Unfortunately, this is her official debut album by industry standards and, as such, comes with certain expectations and surrounding hype. First of all, this record, for better or worse, is connected with current folk queer Devendra Banhart—Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom is the first record to be released by Gnomonsong, a record label founded and run by Banhart and Vetiver’s Andy Cabic. In fact, that’s how the plastic shrink-wrap advertises the record. Hunter is, sadly, almost an afterthought in this media-saturated world where bigger names come first even if such names aren’t directly responsible for the artistic output. Still, Hunter herself would be the first to admit and celebrate Banhart and Cabic’s influence on her as a musician and a person. They are friends, and this album was released not only because of the label’s love of Hunter’s sound but because they believe in promoting artists and friends who might otherwise remain obscured by the scene’s largesse. What fame a Devendra Banhart has gained he has also used to the advantage of others. The fact of the matter is, most people know Jana Hunter as a solo artist (she was in the band Matty and Mossy and most recently appeared on Coco Rosie’s album Noah’s Ark) from Banhart’s curated compilation Golden Apples Of The Sun, which featured her song “Farm, CA.” alongside the likes of Joanna Newsom, Six Organs of Admittance, Iron and Wine, Vashti Bunyan and, of course, Devendra Banhart and Vetiver.
But enough of this backdrop. What matters most is the record. One need only listen to Hunter’s compositions, which range from the mellow and lonely to the more upbeat and collaborative. “Farm, CA” for example, is undeniably the strongest song on the record. The hook is catchy and Hunter’s voice is at her most lush and sensuous. The strings and acoustic guitars are earthen and as such, at times, gracefully off key. And still, other songs like the short “Laughing & Crying” seem to be polar opposites, as Hunter’s voice is adorned only by the clapping of hands. Hunter has a wonderful knack for being able to use her voice along with her mood. As a transient songwriter, mood and vocals go together even more strongly than the average and more studio-based singer. While Hunter has friends sing and play with her on certain tracks, it is she herself who fades in and out of these thirteen songs; from the whimsical to the melancholy, the joy of this record is following along and attempting to find Hunter’s essence and, as great art does, relating it to one’s own essence. Blank Unstaring Heirs Of Doom is a document of different spaces and different times and, often, different Jana Hunter.
Finally, one can readily access the music of Jana Hunter. Finally, one can relish in unpolished pop songs. Finally, one can remember what folk music was and should be all about without having to worry if what they are listening to is a farce or fad, a marketing ploy or a figment of their imagination. Finally, a musician, a person, who sings sweetly, but ever so seriously, words so poignant as “What’s the use in fighting obtuse thoughts / When no one bother’s to think / Make it come out raw like straight through your jaw / Just your jaw is all I ask.” And then just when one thinks one has Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom figured out it ends on a note of electronic contrast and surprise. And then when all the words, all the notes, all the feelings have sunk in, one will most certainly ask, “What’s next?”
Reviewed by: Josh Honn
Reviewed on: 2006-01-06
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