Jana Hunter was already an acclaimed solo musician when she arrived in Baltimore in 2005. She soon formed Lower Dens with other members of the Baltimore music and arts underground. She’s remained at the forefront of the group while other members have come and gone. Recently, the Dens have congealed into a powerful five-piece. Although Jana has relocated to her native Texas, they remain Baltimore-based.
On their second album, Nootropics, Lower Dens confidently use the studio as an instrument, taking chances, adding to and subtracting from the aural field as warranted. The results are stunning, varied, and impressive enough to quash any talk of a “sophomore slump.” The new sound and direction will satisfy some fans, and it will challenge others. Here are some highlights.
“Alphabet Song” begins with the hypnotic percussion of Nate Nelson, whose recent addition to the group has added a new level of rhythmic sophistication. We are gliding along as we are accustomed to doing with the Dens, Hunter’s croon guiding us across spiraling synth lines and Will Adams’ lovely guitar leads. This is their signature sound: warm and dreamy atmospheric pop that drips out of the stereo speakers and slowly takes over the room.
Lead-off single “Brains” is a break from the norm. A motorik beat drives steady and solid as layer after layer is piled on top. Somehow, the cold Teutonic approach translates joyfully, reaching a climax on the instrumental “Stem.” Geoff Graham lays down a lead bass line that breaks the trance and allows the two-track movement to reach a new level of ecstasy.
On several occasions on the album, Jana’s vocal abilities come to the forefront, her usual cool croon growing in sophistication. Sometimes, Jana accompanies herself, her multi-tracked vocals calling and responding wonderfully. This is an integral part of “Lamb,” “Propagation,” and “Candy,” three tracks in the more traditional Dens mode that are upgraded by this new level of vocal nuance.
The two part “Lion in Winter” begins with a four-minute symphonic wash before emerging onto the Kraftwerk factory floor. The fact that the group is willing to explore these new aural territories so confidently may have something to do with another new member. Carter Tanton contributes synths, guitars, and vocals to the album.
On “Nova Anthem,” we are down to just a spare synth accompaniment as Jana contemplates the cosmic, the fireworks saved for her amazing vocal work. Lyrics like “Eclectic storms of violence sweep the planet/ time to escape” receive the epic and urgent delivery they deserve.
“In the End is the Beginning,” a twelve minute post-apocalyptic zone-out, allows the groups’ more experimental side to take flight. The track drifts away from song form as the album comes to a close, a distorted bass line pulse the last thing we hear before we reach the end.
Nootropics emerges from a time of transition for the group, managing to both end and begin. Instead of taking a victory lap and playing it safe on this second album, the band has ventured forth boldly.