Chalk this one up as one of the unlikeliest pleasant surprises of the year: Jenn Wasner of the excellent Baltimore duo Wye Oak has teamed up with Jon Ehrens of White Life to form Dungeonesse, a straight up synth pop duo that would not sound out of place on Top 40 radio. The melodic voice Wasner sports in Wye Oak is fully present here, yet Dungeonesse not only sounds like a main act rather than a side project, but not related to Wye Oak at all.
Instead, the album is unapologetically bubblegum. Unlike a band like Passion Pit, who counter bouncy pop instrumentation with frontman Michael Angelakos’s tales of self-loathing and depression to uneven degrees of success, Wasner is not trying anything thematically ambitious. Drive You Crazy contains some of the same fast-paced synths as Passion Pit’s I’ll Be Alright, and the similarities pretty much end there, but not to Drive You Crazy’s detriment. It’s hard not to literally interpret Dungeonesse in general through its album art, which is simply a musical note camouflaged by a rainbow of colors: the album is a tribute to colourful melody.
Leading off the album, the aptly-titled Shucks is a pure, innocent synth pop gem, a refreshing bit of fun to contrast the self-seriousness of similar-sounding acts like Purity Ring and Grimes. The song recalls teenage anthem Young Blood by The Naked And The Famous, but unlike that song which, while also fun, should stick to soundtracking things like Kony videos, Shucks is not meant to be an us-against-the-world piece of inspiration. Rather, it uses a sugary beat (that’s more complex than on first listen) to convey teen puppy love. The track’s strutting, borderline-rapped chours might as well be the album’s statement of purpose, as Wasner sings: “I know it doesn’t look like much / But it’s love / And I know that’s good enough.” Substituting “look” for “sound”, Shucks’ chorus pretty much sums up the entire album: it may not be important, but it’s good enough to fill the artistic appetite of its creators.
Dungeonesse have an ability to seamlessly transition from ’80s inspired pop to ’90s sounds from song to song. The ’80s-ish Nightlight is a Niki And The Dove-like track that features Wasner’s voice warped through electronic filters, while Show You is Dungeonesse at their most ’90s inspired (it could pass for Wasner’s best ’90s Cher impersonation over an Aphex Twin beat). The catchiest track on the album might be the ironically titled, roller-derby synth pop of Private Party. It’s ironic; instead of sounding like the exclusive champagne bubble snaps of Suit & Tie, Private Party sounds like everyone’s invited.
If there’s anything to criticize about Dungeonesse’s debut, it’s the lack of a single standout track to make anybody go crazy when listening to it. While that might seem like a dumb complaint, listening to the album from start to finish can grow a tad stylistically tiresome because everything is so consistent. There’s the occasional wild card, like the slow, sensual Wake Me Up, but most of the album runs on the same wavelength. In other words, you might not be able to play Dungeonesse at a summer party from start to finish, but it can be brilliantly interspersed among other hipster-approved pop. In any case, it’s impressive that Wasner, who makes some of the most beautiful, melancholy, morose music today as part of Wye Oak, could totally switch gears and stand alone as a pop singer. Dungeonesse deserve to be played on the radio.