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). It’s never been more fashionable to drop household names of beloved artists like they’re period pieces—and there’s no need for those influences to be obscure anymore. Last month the Tumblr generation looked like it got itself a grungy Brittany Spears with Charli XCX and now with the debut of Dungeonesse it looks like enough time has passed for the electro inline skating rink jams of the ’90s to be acceptable derivatives.
The side project of Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and White Life’s Jon Ehrens resembles syrupy tinsel pop of the ’90′s because that’s exactly what it was meant to be. Where some of us wouldn’t have the guts to pump up the volume on that chart-topping radio single, Wasner had the moxie to go up to one of the head honchos of the Secretly Canadian indie label and say “Oh shit, The-Dream, that’s my shit!” Soon after, Wasner was given the go-ahead to vocalize her guilty pleasures, and belt out the Aaliyah and Mariah Carey flush within her while Ehrens utilized his skill set to provide comfortably-retro synth and drum accompaniment. Tracks like “Drive You Crazy” and “Private Party” carry a beat like Rebocks against a rainbow-chalked sidewalk. The little more down-tempo song, “Wake Me Up,” begins with an embedded piano characteristic on such ’90s pop tracks like the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me.” So, yes, stylistically, Dungeonesse is a paradigm of Walkman-pop but does Dungeonesse have anything that is acutely its own? After the fuzzy glow of nostalgia wears off will the album be subjected to “that ’90s sounding” filler music at the party?
Well, most of the buzz about this debut has revolved around Wasner and the fact that the Wye Oak singer stopped wringing out the wet pages of her diary for material and effortlessly wrote a pop album. Yes, the bleeding alto is now singing cascading melodies over fluorescent, sparkling pop synths and instead of leaving mascara impression in pillows, she’s sounding like the cheeky flirt in pumped-up kicks. The transformation is perhaps a little bit on the nose, like in high school when one day out of the blue the shy girl in the button-down cardigan comes into class with a shiny metallic mini-skirt and crimped hair. Wasner obviously doesn’t want to pigeonhole herself and she’s a talented enough singer to pull off many of the tricky pop vocal maneuvers found here. However, when news of Wasner’s dexterity becomes common knowledge, is there much else Dungeonesse offers?
Well, yes, but you have to do a little reading between the lines. The album lacks one basic fundamental of general pop music: lyrical hooks. The primary reason why they’re lacking though is because Wasner’s voice blends so well with Ehrens’ synth hooks that she is at times barely distinguishable from them. The concept is very shoegaze. On tracks like “Drive You Crazy” and “Private Party” her voice sounds like a synth against the base beat. Finding this on a pop record gives Dungeonesse a unique edge in the genre and a blunt personality.
The album is often at its strongest when Wasner has a Blondie spell. On the opening track “Shucks” Wasner showcases her spunk and raps “I know it doesn’t look like much/But it’s love/And I know that it’s good enough” in confident and striking dulcet tones. Which might make one question, why featured rappers, TT The Artist and DDm, had to botch the charm on tracks like “This Could Be Home” and “Cadillac.” These features sound like intrusions to Wasner’s ownership over the tracks and weakens Dungeonesse’s crafty persona. It’s precisely what Dungeonesse has to be careful about—being sure to hone in on what really works well for them as a pop group.