Douglas Martin’s plans to record a split-LP with Devendra Banhart were aborted after he couldn’t name a single Natalie Portman film he actually enjoyed.
In every category except maybe her address, Jana Hunter has always been a remarkably consistent musician. In addition to lending her talents to a wide range of bands including Castanets, Phosphorescent, Indian Jewelry and CocoRosie, the Baltimore-based (for now) Hunter has also had a longstanding artistic relationship with Devendra Banhart, but don’t hold that against her. She was featured on Banhart’s beloved Golden Apples of the Sun compilation, released a split-LP with him, and was presented as the marquee artist on Gnomonsong, the label owned by Banhart and Vetiver frontman Andy Cabic, thus placing her squarely under the tepidly-named “freak-folk” banner.
Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom, the debut release of both her and her label, carried a wide range of styles, from lo-fi acoustic ballads to quirkly, simplistic Casio-led tunes reminiscent of The Blow. Sophomore effort There’s No Home was a vast improvement on all levels, with Hunter stepping into her own as a songwriter, penning low-key-but-extremely-tense marvels like “Regardless” and “Sleep”. Speculative thinking is employed often when a solo artist with a singular voice decides to form a full-fledged group to flesh out songs they’ve written, but the chief value of Lower Dens is that it sounds less like the Jana Hunter Band and more of a plunge into unfamiliar waters.
The strings that connect Twin-Hand Movement to Hunter’s past efforts are in the form of tunes “Tea Lights” and “Truss Me”, the latter a downcast, lazy stroll through tall grass and lovelorn memories, the former a vaguely countrified romp that resists to call too much attention to itself, floating under a low-rumbling bassline and beautifully subtle guitar work. Throughout the record, the emphasis is placed on the band, with much of the record’s thirty-nine minutes being made up of droney guitars and driving drums with limited or non-existent vocals. On standout “I Get Nervous”, guitars are smeared on top of metronomic hi-hats and muted kicks and snares for nearly 1:20 before the longing in Hunter’s voice shyly steps into the foreground.
Hunter is adept at applying textural balance to the moods explored in the lyrical themes of her work, which is apparent all throughout the record. This also applies to her voice, which has always been used more as an instrument than a vessel for “important words”, a trait which has long separated her from the legions of her singer/songwriter peers. In regard to her voice, the standard has always been to compare female voices to other female voices, but Hunter’s vocals are more akin to the emotive timbre of similarly prolific and wanderlust-stricken songwriters Will Oldham and Bill Callahan, evoking their world-weary, dusky tones.
On the dark emotional climax of “Rosie”, Hunter’s voice struggles to rise above the din, only for everything to drop to a hushed murmur while she utters the word “please”, pain emanating from her voice with every high-register squeak. It’s a shockingly revealing moment for a record that seems focused on moving away from the intimacy of the frontwoman’s previous work. Or perhaps the intimacy is just being explored through different avenues. With Twin-Hand Movement, Jana Hunter has proven that perhaps her nomadic revelry has also seeped into her restless creative spirit, as much as it has her suitcase.
MP3: Lower Dens-“Holy Water”