You haven’t always been able to hear it in the actual music that comes out of the city, but Baltimore’s DIY-heavy indie rock scene has always been a beautifully unsnobby and pop-happy sort of place. I haven’t lived there in nearly eight years, and haven’t spent nearly enough time there since I moved out, but I cherish memories of Baltimore as a place where you’d argue the merits of Three 6 Mafia deep cuts between bands at, like, an Out Hud show. When the rest of the indie world was still proudly ignorant about rap or pop music, Baltimore indie art-head types would play Ludacris, not Neutral Milk Hotel, at barbecues, and they’d hold down halfassed rap side projects that they’d trot out at house parties, or they’d book Baltimore club DJs with actual radio shows at their warehouse parties. The past few months of Daft Punk-mania has me thinking of a show I saw in the summer of 2001, one where IDM producer and weirdo rapper Cex, his voice worn out from a European tour, told an Ottobar crowd that he couldn’t really perform so he was just going to throw on Discovery and have a dance party instead. And it worked, too, up until the moment his CD started skipping and he had to get onstage and do a regular show anyway; that mix of dance-music goofiness and art-school stuntery struck me as one of the most Baltimore things I’ve ever seen. As an outsider, I’ve seen that same spirit popping up from time to time: Beach House covering Gucci Mane at Coachella, Wham City’s Whartscape fest booking Lil B before any other indie festival acknowledged his existence. And now Jenn Wasner, the powerfully gifted Wye Oak frontwoman, has made her version of a Ciara album. The saga continues.
Wasner has a hell of a powerful voice, but it’s the sort of voice we most commonly associate with coffeehouse folksingers: Deep, plummy, resonant, plainspoken but with slight drama-nerd accents from time to time, almost never given to showy melismatic pyrotechnics. And it’s pretty incredible how much she’s already done with that voice. In Wye Oak, she’s floating through deeply comforting aqueous indie rock, music that folds in bits of shoegaze and dreampop and alt-country without ever letting any of them take over. As a guest singer on songs like Titus Andronicus’s “To Friends Old And New” or Future Islands’ “The Great Fire,” she’s a wonderfully warm ray-of-sunshine counterpoint to scraggly-voiced male rock singers, and those male rock singers sound better in her reflection. With her own Flock Of Dimes project, that voice comes embedded in beautifully minimal electronic blips and beeps, and it comes across as something almost unsettlingly intimate. But now with Dungeonesse, her project with White Life producer John Ehrens, she’s a straight-up shimmering springtime pop singer, someone who sings love songs over sunny and squelchy electronic tracks that exist at some imagined midpoint between dance-pop and R&B. It’s maybe the oddest and least instinctive fit she’s yet found for that voice, but the contrast between that voice and these songs is a fascinating and joyful thing.
My biggest concern about the album before hearing it, and honestly the album’s biggest problem, is the same thing that dogged the still-pretty-great Ra Ra Riot/Vampire Weekend side project Discovery: Even the most gifted indie stars can’t hope to compete with bigtime pop music on bigtime pop music’s own terms; the best they can hope for is some dinky pastiche. Well, Dungeonesse is certainly a slight and small-stakes album, its 10 songs spread across about 35 minutes. And its textures are way thinner than what you’ll hear on, say, that new Demi Lovato. But it’s still a sincerely euphoric album, one whose cheap pleasures never radiate irony or condescension or even that tittery look-at-me thing that happens so often when indie dorks cover pop hits. It’s more like Wasner and Ehrens went into this thing with the intention of making a breezy top-down warm-weather pop album, knowing full well that this was a serious pursuit that would demand their best efforts.
So “Drive You Crazy” is skittery, bubbly synthpop, the sort of thing that Passion Pit might make if they didn’t produce every second of their music within an inch of its life. “Private Party” is a homemade version of Scandinavian Ace Of Base robo-reggae that lays on the multi-tracked harmonies so thick that, on the bridge, you feel like you’re hearing an entire could of Wasners. “Wake Me Up” is a feathery-soft R&B ballad that’s the closest Wasner will ever come to a Mariah Carey song. “Cadillac” has chunky breakbeats and Deep Forest synth-flutes and a delightfully early-’90s verse from the Baltimore rapper DDm. None of it will change your life; all of it will make your afternoon just slightly brighter. It’s a fun, sincere, warm, pretty album, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that could get lost in the recent avalanche of long-awaited big-name records. Don’t let that happen.
Dungeonesse is out now on Secretly Canadian.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Vampire Weekend’s ambitious, incisive, shimmering, near-perfect Modern Vampires Of The City, an easy Album Of The Week pick if it didn’t already have a Premature Evaluation.
• Eluvium’s expansive analog-ambient double-album Nightmare Ending.
• Bibio’s hazy psychedelic-production opus Silver Wilkinson.
• Small Black’s gorgeously New Orderly Limits Of Desire.
• Iceage side project Vår’s darkly synthy No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers.
• Roomrunner’s furiously fuzz-rocking Ideal Cities.
• MS MR’s hyped-up dark-pop debut Second Hand Rapture.
• Classixx’s smooth, lushly synthetic Hanging Gardens.
• Wampire’s warped psych-pop debut Curiosity.
• Liturgy side project Survival’s self-titled mathy post-hardcore debut.
• Standish/Carlyon’s spacey, dubby debut Deleted Scenes.
• Adult.’s stark, tense electro return The Way Things Fall.
• Pure X’s warm fuzz-rocker Crawling Up The Stairs.
• Pharmakon’s gut-rattling noise LP Abandon.
• Kisses’ new-wavey comeback Kids In L.A.
• Future Islands/Double Dagger instrumental duo Peals’ softhearted debut Walking Field.
• Wild Nothing’s risk-taking, keyboard-happy Empty Estate EP.