Home Alone

Jana Hunter's intimate sketches

These days there are so many musical sub-genres one needs a degree in cultural genealogy to keep track of them all. Magazines like The Wire and numerous blogs have been abuzz for a while with news of a specific grassroots sub-species, however. It comes under many names, but the ones that've stuck in the cultural zeitgeist are freak folk and New Weird Americana, appellations given to performers engaging in folk with a loopy or non-purist approach. The phrase encompasses everything from the traditional-leaning — Jolie Holland, Espers — to mutant indie rock such as the Shivers, Current 93, and Devendra Banhart. Texas lass Jana Hunter is another artist granted the freak-folk tag, but she's difficult to categorize, even within such eclectic company, and that's a recommendation in itself.

Hunter's latest disc There's No Home is both melodically charming and harrowingly unsettling, a chronicle of restless yearning, hope, and disintegration. A study in sharp contrasts, Home is oddly comforting and claustrophobically pensive. Carried by spare, rolling chords and cooing, almost whispered harmonies, "Psalms" lets the listener eavesdrop on lovers laying themselves bare: "I open my hands to you/ I open my psalms to you/ I show you my arms, my soft skin." "Oracle" paints her as an unashamedly ornery protagonist: "When morning comes/ To set by the sea/ I have no patience nor subtlety ... Tie me down/ So I can't move/ And I will wonder/ How to improve." Home offers an intimate visit to the narrator's mindset, somewhat akin to John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and virtually anything by Nick Drake and Syd Barrett. Perhaps that's because Hunter's songs feel intimate (though not all are personal). "I write for myself," says Hunter, who also plays many of the instruments — guitar, violin, drum machine, "basic keyboard parts" — on Home.

The fifth of nine Hunter offspring, Ms. Jana played classical violin for 10 years until the lure of rocking out proved too strong to resist. She performed with her brother in a Houston combo, but she's done solo shows off 'n' on since she was 18. Despite the folk underpinnings in her sound, though, Hunter doesn't consider herself part of this freak-folk scene. But then, neither does patron/fellow-Texan Banhart, whose Gnomonsong label's initial release was Hunter's rosy-titled Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom. "Part of the reason I play electric guitar on tour is because I don't want to be [considered] a singer-songwriter," Hunter says.

Despite her assertions to the contrary, Hunter's Home doesn't elude the folk handle completely. The songs are expressed in a reflective manner and a primarily acoustic context, garlanded by crackling electric guitar. Hunter's singing is as effusively Texan — that is, earnest 'n' honest — as Nanci Griffith, albeit more languorous, her blues-flavored phrasing bringing to mind Bobbi Gentry on "Ode to Billie Joe." Hunter admits to being moved by the Carter Family, Delta blues pioneer Charlie Patton, and early 20th-century gospel, along with the dissonant, arty punk of Wire. (Note the abrasive, distorted guitar on "Pinnacle.") Hunter's frequently multi-tracked vocals on Home aren't very high or sharp in the mix — something of a no-no in folk music — and that's on some level intentional. "The voice as an instrument is important as any other," she says. Voices of Home aren't just words, but also generate mood, texture, and ambiance. The upshot of the lyrics is superseded by the mystery, the very sound and feeling, imparted by voices blending with Spartan music. There's No Home is rich with this indefinable quality, a particular poignancy beyond words.

 
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