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Jana Hunter - Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom

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Artist: Jana Hunter

Album: Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom

Label: Gnomonsong

Review date: Jan. 24, 2006

For better or worse, the solo career of ex-Matty and Mossy singer Jana Hunter will inevitably be tied to Devendra Banhart. While Banhart makes a practice of name-dropping artist friends in nearly every interview he gives, Hunter may be the one most benefiting from her friend’s influence. Many listeners’ first introduction to Ms. Hunter came on the Banhart curated Golden Apples of the Sun, and then there was the Banhart/Hunter split vinyl on the Troubleman Unlimited label.

It’s not surprising then that Banhart would choose to release Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom, Hunter’s first official full-length collection of songs, as the first release on his new Gnomonsong label. But to claim that Hunter is merely riding on Banhart coattails is preposterous in light of just how outstanding the songs on Blank... are. Hunter’s music is stylistically, thematically, and lyrically about as far from Banhart’s as one can get while still working within the ever-widening boundaries of the “folk” genre, and label-name aside, Blank... should put her at the front of the new-folk scene as her own artist.

Culled from numerous self-recorded and released songs Hunter has been dragging around on tour for the past few years, Blank... is more a self-proclaimed “Greatest Hits,” and due to poor track sequencing (one of the record’s most profound faults), it sounds like an unbalanced collection. To her credit, Hunter makes each song a tiny masterpiece in its own right, and while the album doesn’t flow as well as it could (opener “All the Best Wishes” is a fantastic bit of ghostly oldies-balladry, but suffers as the first track) each song works its way into the listener’s head in its own way, in its own time.

While some studio embellishments have been added to songs previously heard on Hunter’s self-released CD-Rs, such as the drums on “Untitled (Hanging Around),” Blank... is still a record that is more ephemeral than it is concrete, doused in reverb and melodies that take awhile to sink in. Rather than Banhart, a closer comparison of Hunter’s musical syntax would be fellow sublime-folk practitioners Castanets, who Hunter tours with as a member.

Hunter’s androgynous vocals, whether doused in effects or brought us richly to the front of the mix, are really the centerpiece of these songs, and are showcased especially well in the two a cappella numbers “The Earth Has No Skin” and “Laughing and Crying” (a holdover from the spilt LP). Hunter’s guitar playing here is fairly understated, relying on bass notes and effects to create the dreamlike mood that pervades the record. Which is not to say that she is all style and no substance. On the contrary, even the most processed of these songs have a lively yet hypnotic core that conveys Hunter’s magnetism where words like ethereal and psychedelic fail.

For those lucky enough to have Hunter’s self-released material, there are undoubtedly some glaring omissions in this collection, if it was, in fact, a “best of” and some welcome surprises (like SK1-based closer “K”). Still, the 13 songs collected here are a good introduction for new comers and fans alike (largely due to their improved sound quality). They are certainly a hint at what might be, if Hunter is given the resources and time to make a proper album. Until then, we can listen and dream.

By Jon Pitt

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