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Non-guilty Pleasures

Indie-rock mainstays make pop-rock party record

Photo: Shervin Lainez, License: N/A

Shervin Lainez

Jon Ehrens and Jenn Wasner of Dungeonesse

A decade ago, a record like Dungeonesse’s self-titled debut, out May 14 on Secretly Canadian, might have raised some eyebrows: A well-known indie-rocker and a jack-of-all trades scene stalwart joining forces to make music that sounds like the top 40 hits of yesteryear. But with underground music enjoying a much-welcomed big-tent phase, Jenn Wasner and Jon Ehrens’ radio-ready dance pop is hardly shocking.

“I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures,” says Ehrens.

These days, the hip priests at Pitchfork fawn over Swedish pop star Robyn, and there’s even a new, trendy genre called PBR&B, combining R&B with the hipsters’ beer of choice, PBR. Yet this is still somewhat of a change of pace for Wasner and Ehrens. The duo’s other projects—Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes for Wasner, Art Department and White Life for Ehrens—are bands that practice and play live, while they see Dungeonesse as more akin to behind-the-scenes hitmakers like the Matrix or Stargate.

“Jon and I think of ourselves as a songwriting team and production duo more than a live band,” Wasner says over the phone from Portland, where Wye Oak is rehearsing for an upcoming tour of Asia.

As this isn’t a band, they have no plans on touring in support of the record. “Mainly the record is a document of our capabilities as people who can write and produce good, solid records, more than a live band,” Ehrens says.

“The dream is to move into the world of producing and writing songs for other people, and I don’t think that would necessarily preclude us from making music as Dungeonesse on our own, but I think that that would be the most exciting thing that could happen to us,” Wasner explains.

While Wasner and Ehrens have known each other since the days when Wye Oak was still called Monarch, the impetus that created Dungeonesse began when Wasner heard White Life’s demo. “I sort of badgered [Ehrens] to send me tracks that he was making,” she says. “He was trying to produce more. His plan was to go out to L.A. and find a singer, and I eventually convinced him to let me take a crack at a couple of them.”

The record came together pen-pal style, over the course of a year when Wasner was on tour with Wye Oak. Ehrens would send tracks in various states of completion, while Wasner would provide feedback and record vocals when she could find a quiet moment.

“Being on tour, being so focused on one thing, and being so consumed by that one path, the creative side of yourself can kinda get a little neglected, left to rot while you’re playing the same 10 songs every night,” Wasner says. “[Dungeonesse] kept the creative part of myself alive and functioning during that year.”

Similarly Ehrens would not be satisfied with only one project. This is a man so prolific that we here at Baltimore’s Catchiest Alternative Weekly compiled a mixtape from 14 different Ehrens-related projects. “I like to float around and dabble in lots of different kinds of stuff,” Ehrens says.

The album’s production, which was mostly Ehrens’ responsibility, is a bubbly and spacey mix of ’90s new jack swing and 2-step garage, an offshoot of drum and bass. “At the time, I was working on stuff while I was standing up, and I would just wait until I started actually moving my feet and want to dance around to it,” Ehrens says.

Wasner’s voice floats over this syncopated barrage of beats and ping-ponging synths. While her singing sounds effortless, it wasn’t the easiest transition from Wye Oak to Dungeonesse. “[It was] one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself as a singer, because I really had to stretch myself,” Wasner says. “These songs are really challenging.”

While the duo acknowledges the influence of ’90s pop music, they defend the record as being more than just a nostalgia cash-in.

“I didn’t go out, like, we’re going to make a ’90s R&B record,” Ehrens says. “At the time, I was going to lots of parties and Notorious B.I.G. would come on, Mariah Carey would come on, and within the first measure, people would freak out, scream, stop their conversations, and run to the dancefloor. I was enamored [of] that idea.”

Wasner adds, “I think some people just assume it was a throwback record intentionally, and we didn’t go into [it] that way at all. We were just trying to make a timeless pop record.”

For now, enjoy belting along to “Drive You Crazy,” the musical equivalent of a bouncy castle, or the shimmering and infectious “Show You.” We will have to wait a bit to see if Dungeonesse is timeless or not.

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