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Lower Dens, ‘Nootropics’ (Ribbon Music)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 01, 2012
Label: Ribbon Music

Jana Hunter, frontwoman for hazy, psych-folk crew Lower Dens never has shied away from stark social commentary. She’s a cultural activist at best, an arty politicker at worst. Once a staple of Devendra Banhart’s Gnomonsong freak-folk caravan and now a part of a small, self-contained arts scene in Baltimore, she’s made bemoaning the coming apocalypse a full-time hobby by now. Recruiting a backing band to form Lower Dens in 2009 did little to change her disheartened demeanor; and the resigned loneliness that peeked through her earlier doom-folk solo work is more apparent than ever on this band’s newest album Nootropics. Proposed alternate title: Life’s Shit And Then You Die…Alone.

Nootropics is not a cutesy spelling of “new tropics,” but rather a family of mind-bending stimulants. These so-called “smart drugs” are meant to improve cognition by enhancing levels of intelligence, memory, and awareness in their users. As a title, it fits: Drowsy, translucent dream-states are definitely something to expect from Lower Dens, exactly as one might from their hometown brethren Beach House. But this particular album’s dose of narcosis demands a higher level of lucidity. Lower Dens’ sophomore album is less ethereal, less lo-fi, and less predictable than their 2010 debut Twin Hand Movement, as the band has beefed up their sound and juiced their tempos with upbeat drums, psychedelic new wave, and beaming krautrock influences. The psych-drone that previously has functioned as a numbing agent to Hunter’s lyrical melancholia still exists, but this time it also envelops you with complex beauty.

“Brains” is the compulsively addictive shining star of the bunch, pairing tense, slowly building drum patterns with simple bass lines. Like its instrumental counterpart “Stem,” the track’s cues are taken from the electronic minimalism of post-Kraftwerk bands like Neu! and La Dusseldorf. During “In the End is the Beginning” (yet another foreshadowing of the world’s demise) the band embraces art-rock, with shrill pipes whining through the static-filled background. It’s the same subtle stroke of noise that’s familiar from the Velvet Underground’s opium-den concoctions. Ultimately, this perfectly played retro-futurism, married with motorik pulse, and new-wave swirls, puts the political crusade on the backburner.

But make no mistake. For all of its new beats and newfound awareness, Nootropics is still a very sleepy album. “Lion in Winter Pt. 1” seems implicitly created with naptime in mind; the distant static and toneless reverb sounds remarkably like the “whale songs” settings on one of those sleep-assisting noise machines. Elsewhere, the drowsiness serves more as a lush lullaby. On “Propagation,” the low-moan of Hunter’s vocals weaves a hypnotic cocoon as they swirl over guitar fuzz and ghostly synth echoes. And even when she reaches her vocal peak — wailing a gorgeous, throaty, cascading chorus of “I’m always falling down” with a daunting ferocity on “Lamb” — the drama is quickly and quietly swallowed by the song’s surrounding darkness.

It’s these moments of impact, where glowing nuance swells out of the fog, that makes Nootropics gleam in both sound and sentiment. Dreamy fuzz makes way for gripping toe-tappers, and Hunter’s apprehensive, apocalyptic warnings are accompanied by doses of empathy along the way. As a result, the album serves as a caution while also immersing you in Hunter’s predicament: It’s an attempt to explain the world’s dysfunction while subtly acknowledging the pill-popping, drug-fueled escapism so many confuse with enlightenment. Sometimes trance-inducing, sometimes wildly dynamic, the album is a sumptuous, woozy feast that proudly dances on the lines between nirvana and reality.