Indie rockers have been toying with R&B long enough now that it no longer feels novel, so the sound doesn’t work as an “Emperor’s New Clothes”-style crutch for lesser music anymore. Three years ago, cribbing from Jodeci or SWV was a new ballgame in underground music, a sound exotic enough to distract from questions of quality and keep listeners pressing play on new experiments even when it amounted to a first date with a vapid beauty. Tom Krell could get away with cringeworthy falsetto on early How To Dress Well recordings because the excitement of hearing him forge into new sonic territory compensated for his weak vocal performance. Songwriters far less capable than Krell got by on little more than shiny sheen. Now the Internet is saturated with acts hawking new millennial New Jack Swing. It was a brave new world; it’s becoming a cliché.
In that context, any apprehension upon learning that Jenn Wasner of moody Baltimore indie band Wye Oak has started a ’90s-style R&B project is understandable. Who needs another dilettante diva? Fortunately, Wasner and White Life’s Jon Ehrens acquit themselves gorgeously on Dungeonesse’s self-titled debut. Unlike Wasner’s deadpan live rendition of R. Kelly’s “Real Talk” last year, there’s no irony, just joyous reverence for the pop radio of their youth. Nor is Dungeonesse a gloomy, ghostly venture in line with Wye Oak and the crop of wannabe Clams Casinos clogging up Bandcamp. Even at its most minor, the record offers a refreshing reprieve from the dark side of R&B revivalism, rescuing the genre from the brink of self-parody and establishing Wasner as one of music’s most malleable talents.
From the first shimmering synths of opener “Shucks,” Dungeonesse’s aesthetic is bold, bright, and sleek—think Mariah Carey at the laser light show. There and on lead single “Drive You Crazy,” Dungeonesse owns that sound; both songs are glimmering gems. From there, the duo glides through a few satisfying permutations. Sometimes Wasner and Ehrens refract their pop source material through the prism of fellow art-damaged revivalists: “Show You” resembles a lighter, airier Purity Ring, while “Nightlight” and “Wake Me Up” do Chairlift’s stately synth-pop better than Chairlift. They get weird on the noisy “This Could Be Home,” which could be Yo La Tengo’s organ-droning “Autumn Sweater” dubbed over a Jock Jams cassette from under the car seat, replete with a garbled, unspooling finale. Certain songs sound like genuine ’90s artifacts, particularly “Cadillac,” a vibrant drive through Motownphilly, and “Private Party,” which is apparently the kind of party where Montell Jordan is in heavy rotation. A guest verse from Baltimore rapper DDm on “Cadillac” can’t help but sound corny, though it’s definitely era-appropriate. In the record’s other rap forays, Wasner proves herself an honor student in the Ke$ha/Kitty/Kreayshawn school of detached sing-song, but she’s really just striking Madonna’s pose from “Vogue.”
Dungeonesse never plays like a side project because symbiosis brings out the best in both members. In Wasner, who is blessed with cavernous range and brimming charisma, Ehrens discovered a singer capable of saving his productions from his own pinched chillwave vocals. In Ehrens, Wasner found someone to unlock her breezy side. Whereas her solo work as Flock Of Dimes is essentially a digitized take on Wye Oak’s somber twilight balladry, Dungeonesse is pure jubilation, a record that demands, “I wanna hear your heartbeat,” and happily reciprocates.