REVIEW: Lower Dens - "Nootropics"

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Lower Dens - Nootropics
Record Label - Ribbon Music
Release Date - May 1st, 2012

Some years ago, when Silver Jews frontman Dave Berman called Radiohead "gray," it's hard to think that he didn't have another band and another album in mind.  Nootropics, the second release from Jana Hunter fronted Lower Dens, slow-churns its way through your speakers like a psychedelic sci-fi iceberg.  It is, unabashedly, gray.

The title originates from smart drugs (natural or otherwise) which improve brain function.  While this album doesn't appear (from quite a few listens) to be the indie equivalent of Baby Mozart, what makes itself readily apparent is that you should be at a high functioning neuro-capacity to follow the twists and turns of the album like the fuzzy bass which merges from "Brains" into "Stem."  It's the sort of thing that Deerhunter has been making good use of on the last two records--a thumping bass out of vocal discordance with a disconnected riff drifting above.  The aforementioned "Brains," the album's single, if you could call it that, is the closest that Nootropics gets to catchy.  And the track eventually extinguishes itself with a Velvet Underground "Murder Mystery" simultaneous vocal flourish.  Patterns resist the subdued sonic spectrum.  Even in the spacey "Lion in Winter Pt. 1," the instrumentation flirts with the sublime for a moment before turning into a steady pacing key riff in "Lion in Winter Pt. 2." By the time the tinkling triangle hits at the end of the track, the reliance on beat feels like a quotation. "This is what a rock song is," the track seems to say, "every rock track needs a beat."

So, it's no exaggeration to call Nootropics an atmospheric record.  And no exaggeration to say that this is where Lower Dens excels.  While the phrase "atmospheric record" generally implies a kind of vague bombast, Nootropics is subdued to the point that you might miss the arrival of new member (and WLFY fave) Carter Tanton on keys.

Tanton's presence serves to more highly texture the other Dens.  Whereas Twin Hand Movement relied on a rigorous song structure, Nootropics relies on rigorous songwriting.  The slow creeping of each track is an illusion -- the more you listen, the further that you feel from the track.  "Candy" moves about as fast as any track on the album and is probably one of the least sonically woven.  That is, until the guitar goes skittering off the track and the album draws its first large act closed.  The second act features large noise songs like the "Lion in Winter" pair and the buzzy dark 60s-inspired psychedelia of "In the End is the Beginning."

Hunter's roots lie in the (now burnt-out?) freak-folk movement, appearing with her first song as the first track of the glorious Devandra Banhart-curated Golden Apples of the Sun.  Those freaky folky roots were still showing on Twin Hand Movement as songs were stitched together with beats.  Now, Hunter's voice seems to be leading the way.  "In the End is the Beginning," an homage to The Doors' "The End," Hunter intones (a la Morrison) a list of personal observations before the guitar emerges from the fabric not moving faster nor harder, but louder.  The beat continues on and on.

The slow churn of Nootropics intoxicates because it requires extended, attentive listening.  As opposed to 60s and 70s psychedelia which was the hard charging product of drugs with orgasmic finishes and mind-expanding instrumentation, Lower Dens are crafting music which functions like a drug (or natural stimulant) by moving your mind to make musical connections.  Contrast the vocal patterns on "Propagation" and "Brains" with the Velvet Underground's "Murder Mystery."  While VU played simultaneous tracks in the right and left, Lower Dens disjoint their vocals in harmony, making the listener make connections through melody rather than stimuli.  The space is in the music, not in your speakers.  Each subtle expanse of music grows through the listener.  

1 comment:

  1. Nootropics effect like any supplement, they work differently for each person.