Album Review: Lower Dens – Nootropics

[Ribbon Music; 2012]

Nootropics is definitely the kind of album that needs to be taken with a little perspicacity. While the casual listener might find one or two points of interest in Lower Dens sophomore album, appreciating it feels like something more than just hitting play and letting the music run its course. It’s a dense record, but never hopelessly deep; there’s always points of entry, such as the krautrock shuffle of “Brains,” or the noir-ish slow-step of “Candy.” It’s often murky and grey, but never pitch black; it’s considered and thought-out, but often moves at a casual pace; it’s mystifying, but never distinctly attractive. It not so much a record that juxtaposes itself, but rather one that sways between the two sides of whatever spectrum you put it in.

Aforementioned “Brains” is a concise and inspired track that marries the band’s own brand of cloudy and drowsy desolateness with an established genre (krautrock, as said); it’s the album’s best track here and the band seem to realise this, as they let the groove continue into two-minute instrumental “Stem.” Elsewhere “Nova Anthem” lulls the listener with an almost hypnotic bobbing, like empty life-jackets on the ocean’s surface, before widening itself into a dramatic build that feels strangely unexpected but also completely natural. “Lamb” also offers a similar kind of crescendo, in that it’s not out of place, but it can catch you off guard as it emerges from a stuttering grey film soundscape.

However, the murkiness reigns supreme for the most part, casting its shadow over the majority of the material here, making the instruments sound tense, if not worried. And it also helps lead singer Jana Hunter sound all the more intriguing and mysterious, as her words resonate into deserted streets. Her lyrics tend to match the mood, too, referencing post-apocalyptic wastelands; like Pop. 1280’s album, The Horror, Nootropics brings to mind the film The Road, albeit a more ruminated version. On “Brains,” when the dust cloud of minor chords hits at the chorus, she seems to describe a horrific incident of some sort, mumbling to herself, like recounting the whole incident is a painful and tedious task, whereas “Propagation” has the characters of the song reassuring their survival by addressing the fact they will have to reproduce to last. Final track “In The End Is The Beginning” has Hunter singing at her clearest, poignantly pondering “I feel different now,” as synths that sound like distant alarms go off over and over, while the track slowly falls in on itself over the course of twelve minutes.

The acuity then is helpful in appreciating Nooptropics, in not only being able to form a tighter grasp of the album as a whole, but also of the more subtle and darker stuff here. Upon first listens it can feel easy to treat Nootropics as an album that struggles to find a place to rest itself, and even as something can come off as pretentiously indecisive. But it’s Hunter’s elusive and strangely alluring voice that ties this all together, always resurfacing at the right points before anything starts drifting off too aimlessly (though, “In The End…” could be a little guilty of doing so). Her outlook is often bleak, making her lyrics read like doomsday poetry, but, as said before, it the combination of her and the music that makes it its best. It’s a shame, perhaps, that they never make a drop into that pitch black territory, as the end result not only has potential to sound and be deeper, but also just to create a more densely intriguing result. The band seem to hover above any firm ground – even “Brains” and “Candy” have a looseness to them that never sets them in the one place – and consequently can have the listener pining after something that feels like more of an affirmative statement. And Nootropics certainly proves that the Lower Dens are smart enough to produce this kind of end result.