An artist like Jana Hunter can be at an immense disadvantage. Upon Devendra Banhart “discovering” her in 2005, the Baltimore-by-way-of-Houston musician was lumped into the ultra-hyped freak-folk movement. She released two albums of spare, offbeat folk tunes, and then the freak-folk bubble burst. Acoustic folk musicians all too often paint themselves into corners, releasing album after album of the same gently strummed background music. But Hunter is well aware of this. With the absence of any associated scene, she’s traded in her acoustic for an electric guitar, leading a full band called Lower Dens in an exploration of ragged psychedelic rock.
Projects like these are a great way for an artist to regroup and refresh, and there’s little doubt Hunter could have felt saddled by that earlier genre tag. Here she doesn’t so much let loose as expand on her folk tendencies. Like much of Hunter’s stripped-down discography, Lower Dens’ songs are patient, slowly morphing with the aid of careful guitar squall. Most of the record can trace its roots to the kinds of droning interstitials she included on 2007’s There’s No Home, but here they’re fleshed out with a solid backing band. First single “I Get Nervous” starts tenuously before giving way to a firm backbeat and Hunter’s raspy voice, displaying a cinematic sense of unease that repeatedly pops up. The record is bookended by “Blue & Silver” and “Two Cocks,” two songs that get by with a Krautrock-like intensity. There’s little in the way of comfort, as Hunter’s voice and guitar, both bathed in reverb, trade in claustrophobia rather than expansiveness.
While Hunter’s wall-of-sound guitars are certainly hard to miss, what gives the album edge is the muscular rhythm section. The unfortunately named “A Dog’s Dick” uses a guitar melody that’s so simple it allows for a snaking bass line and minimal drums to carry the song forward to the cathartic conclusion. “Holy Water” immediately follows, offering a nice instrumental cleanser of distorted bass and a propulsive rhythm for the careening guitars. Elsewhere Lower Dens rely too much on the mood-over-melody technique. “Plastic & Powder” wears out its welcome long before it reaches its final six and a half minutes, despite another memorable drumbeat. Likewise, “Tea Lights” kills all the momentum of the album opener. A dark bass line is the only real highlight, as Hunter’s tired melody replays endlessly.
But these missteps are few and far between and obvious aberrations compared with the sublime brilliance of “Hospice Gates,” a late-record standout and Hunter’s best song in her still-young career. “Gates” rides yet another stellar rhythm to great effect, using the dark groove to dissipate the sleepiness of the album’s later minutes. Guitar feedback is corralled to offer color to Hunter’s weary bellow, but she strays from the comfort of her lower register into some truly stunning high notes that perfectly match the song’s rising tension. The song is perfectly timed and executed, and it gives hope for even better things to come.
Hunter is wholly comfortable as the frontwoman for a rock band, but you’d never guess that given her past. She’s been pigeonholed as a strictly folk talent; thankfully she’s decided to defy this categorization. Twin-Hand Movement is the sound of an artist breaking free, putting her formerly good skills to great use.