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+ Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
+ Coachwhips - Double Death
+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
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+ Function - The Secret Miracle Fountain
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
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Jana Hunter
Blank Unstaring Heirs Of Doom

Jana Hunter is apparently the mysterious "Power Woman," that elusive feminine force that guides Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic's new Gnomonsong label. She is also the first artist to record on Gnomonsong, bringing together 10 years worth of home-recorded tracks in a soulful, gorgeous and occasionally disturbing debut full-length.

Vocally, Hunter sounds very much like Karen Dalton, one of Banhart's three early inspirations (the others being Vashti Bunyan and Judy Henske). This is to say, she has a velvety tone with a low range that extends beyond most women's, combined with an unexpectedly childlike higher register. She also sings with an unforced genuineness that warms and deepens every track. Her voice, poised as Banhart's often is between blues and folk, gives a burnished glow to songs that range from comfortingly traditional to wildly original. Through the murk and echo of home recording, she sounds on "All the Best Wishes" like a supernatural creature, haunting and lovely and ineffable. Unaccompanied by instruments, she sings harmonies and descants with herself here, the melodic line blending with slow-changing sung chords and high-noted counterpoints. It is an unearthly and mysterious way into a very spiritual album, setting the tone for the rest of the tracks.

With "The New Sane Scramble," we pick up Hunter's eccentric guitar playing, a rhythmic but unusual repetitive pattern that adds tension to her singsong vocals. There's also a trace of the violin that Hunter's been playing since age 9, twisted into a wild skirls of accompaniment. Yet though the track is ornamented with instruments, it feels bare and essential, with only the bones showing through. The same might be said for "Christmas," all jazz-inflected upright bass and blues vocals. Hunter's voice tracks the bass line, pausing in the same places and creating dark caverns for meditation. The handclaps of "Laughing and Crying" and the swooning strings of "Farm, Ca." seem like a relief after all this intensity, yet even these fluid offerings are shadowed with strong, dark emotions. The schoolyard chant of "Laughing and Crying" hides a ferocious worldview, limned with words like "Laughing and crying/ Are the same thing/ Tearing at something/ With claws you can't see." Similarly, the sweet country violin of "Farm, Ca." (which first appeared on the "New Folk" compilation, The Golden Apples of the Sun, that Banhart put together for Arthur magazine last year) wraps around unfathomable sadness, a melancholy that goes beyond words and seeps through your skin. Only the final cut, the odd and endearing "K," seems unconflictedly joyful, with its canned drum-machine beat and electro keyboard line.

Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom is intense, honest and individual. It's the kind of music that is often made in isolation, by distinctive and talented individuals with no one telling them what to do. Paradoxically, it's just this sort of music that draws people together, as we discover that what's unique about one artist is actually a little piece of us all. Jana Hunter may be Power Woman, or she may not, but there's no denying she has made an extremely powerful album here.

by Jennifer Kelly

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