Release Date: May 14, 2013
Record label: Secretly Canadian
Genre(s): R&B, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Dance, Alternative R&B
The '90s have clearly replaced the '80s as the go-to decade for the next wave of musical trends, and whether it's the grungy alternative of Best Coast and Wavves or the stripped-down Chicago house of Azari & III, or even the soft, Sade-kissed R&B of acts like Jessie Ware and Rhye, no genre seems safe from appropriation. Even Jenn Wasner, half of the folksy and often ethereal Baltimore duo Wye Oak, is compelled to channel Daydream-era Mariah Carey for her partnership with producer Jon Ehrens. As Dungeonesse, Wasner and Ehrens turn their attention to commandeering the bubbly, clubby exuberance of mid-'90s pop, crafting an unapologetic monument to canned percussion, elastic synths, and sweetly conceited dating woes ripped straight from a middle-schooler's Lisa Frank diary.
In 2013, a ton of indie groups mined the fertile ground of R&B for inspiration, and many of them did a nice job capturing the feel of the style, while doing weird things to it. Dungeonesse, made up of vocalist Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Jon Ehrens of Art Department, is one of them, though they take a more straightforward approach. Most of the songs wouldn't sound too out of place on a Mtume record or as a Teena Marie B-side.
"Something that Jon and I talk about a lot is the idea of reclaiming pop music," Wye Oak singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner said as an introduction to their new electro-pop duo Dungeonesse. “Placing it squarely in the hands of, I dunno, say, a couple of regular nerds from Baltimore.” (Jon Ehrens is of the Baltimore band White Life.) Wasner’s quote was a pretty soft sell. With very few exceptions, the best kind of pop music is superhumanly suave and wilts at the first sign of even quasi-academic jargon, so there are a couple of red flags in that sentence: “regular”, “nerds”, “reclaiming.” But luckily, none of these words have anything to do with the way Dungeonesse’s light, infectious, effortlessly cool debut actually sounds.
Anyone hoping to hear elements of the gritty guitar-infused rock of Wye Oak on Dungeonesse’s self-titled debut album are bound to be in for a shock. A welcome one, but still a shock nonetheless. Sure, Jenn Wasner’s soaring vocals breathe life and spirit into both diverse projects, but with Dungeonesse, her dulcet tones float over a funky, disco-pop pulse instead of the wistful, Neil Young-like Americana of her other band.
Jenn Wasner is best known as half of Baltimore indie-folk duo Wye Oak, and John Ehrens as electro-man White Life. But as Dungeonesse they want to “reclaim pop” and “place it squarely in the hands of a couple of regular nerds”. This ignores the best things about pop (its glorious over-the-topness, and the fact its greatest stars such as Lady Gaga or Prince are anything but a regular occurence), but there’s enough to like here on ‘Dungeonesse’.
Chalk this one up as one of the unlikeliest pleasant surprises of the year: Jenn Wasner of the excellent Baltimore duo Wye Oak has teamed up with Jon Ehrens of White Life to form Dungeonesse, a straight up synth pop duo that would not sound out of place on Top 40 radio. The melodic voice Wasner sports in Wye Oak is fully present here, yet Dungeonesse not only sounds like a main act rather than a side project, but not related to Wye Oak at all. Instead, the album is unapologetically bubblegum.
'Alt' R'n'B has boomed lately, with Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, and Justin Timberlake, amongst others, establishing themselves as cross-over successes, as beloved by traditionally indie kids as pop and R'n'B fans alike. With electronic trends increasingly coming to invade all other genres, from the now-ever present pop 'drops' to the invasively popular house synth stabs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that R'n'B too is having something of a renaissance. Of course, it also fits with the continued mining of the Nineties for inspiration that has been dominant in music for the last few years.
The modern indie approach to R&B tends toward coldness, isolation, and sterility. So, kudos to Jenn Wasner and Jon Ehrens for steering clear of the dark to try and have some fun. Their debut album under the Dungeonesse moniker is a far cry from both of their main ventures, particularly Wasner’s. Seeing as we’ve gotten plenty of moody contemplation from Wye Oak, the woman’s earned the right to party.
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.
It’s not uncommon for musicians to take from the critically acclaimed household names of previous generations. Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing states flat out that he’s in his room listening and learning from ’80s icons like Cocteau Twins and the Cure. Post-punk revivalists Savages have their noses between the pages of Vonnegut and Bradbury just as their forerunners had (just look under their influences on Facebook).
In her work here as Dungeonesse, a side project with Baltimore writer/producer John Ehrens (of White Life and Art Department),Wye Oak vocalist Jenn Wasner has taken a turn into unfamiliar territory. It marks a clear departure from her previous, low-key, indie folk-rock output with Wye Oak, and her guest spots on other albums (most notably on ‘To Old Friends and New’ from Titus Andronicus’ excellent sophomore album ‘The Monitor’). Combining dance-pop programming with studied R&B vocals, this debut often comes across like a careful examination of the art of constructing a dancefloor-ready pop album.