Dungeonesse -- 'Dungeonesse' (Secretly Canadian)

RATING: *** out of 4 The debut album from Dungeonesse -- the Baltimore duo of Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak, Flock of Dimes) and Jon Ehrens (White Life) -- comes with high expectations. Their previous work in other bands has established their reputations as potent songwriters, but Dungeonesse is a new challenge. Can these two pull off unabashed pop? For the most part, the answer is yes -- as long as you're not expecting these songs to fit comfortably between Bruno Mars and Selena Gomez on the Billboard Hot 100. This is solid, if not slight, music filled with nostalgia for a simpler time: Namely, the '90s, when strong melodies and hooks -- and not social-media presence or TMZ headlines -- were enough to win fans. This album won't shift the course of modern pop, but its best songs could turn a quiet gathering of friends into a full-on dance party. "Drive You Crazy," the first single and most effective song here, captures what Dungeonesse does best: fast-paced and propulsive electronic music that ping-pongs in all directions, with Wasner acting as a sturdy anchor. Her voice, being pushed in new directions, never overwhelms these tracks. Instead, it adds human texture to synthetic backdrops. Wasner's ability to excel isn't shocking because of her increasingly excellent work as Wye Oak's lead singer and as a solo artist. But it's Ehrens, a prolific Baltimore songwriter, whose production work pleasantly surprises most. His cascading beats shimmer while his canned drums keep songs moving forward. "Private Party," with its layers of major-chord synthesizers, works in harmony with Wasner's playful flirtations. "Dungeonesse" makes its most significant strides when the tempo is highest. Slower tracks such as "Nightlight" and "Wake Me Up" are serviceable attempts at showing range, but they also stop the party in its tracks. (They would work for the tail end of the party, when the sloppy slow dancing enters.) But they are minor hiccups. The album, which could be described as a sugar rush, proves Wasner and Ehrens are a duo capable of writing pop songs that stick in a listener's brain after they're over. Perhaps best of all, Dungeonesse included two of Baltimore's most promising rappers: TT the Artist and DDm. The latter uplifts "Cadillac" with an appropriately old-school (and on-topic) verse ("When you see high beams and you hear loud pipes / know that it's DDm, I'm all right!"). But it's TT the Artist and her injection of Baltimore Club chant-like shouts that remind everyone where these artists all live and create. It's a winning marriage, appropriately titled "This Could Be Home." -- Wesley Case
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