First Listen: Lower Dens, 'Nootropics'
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Reinvention is built into Jana Hunter's DNA. While best known as the enigmatic center of Baltimore's Lower Dens, Hunter is also a classically trained violinist who took up guitar and found herself loosely aligned with Devandra Banhart's so-called "freak folk" scene. Back then, Hunter wrote inward-looking confessionals and creaky bedroom experiments that, while haunting and lovely, were essentially revealing open wounds in musical form. Musically, she was exposed, and it was maybe an odd fit.
Hunter has always come off as a shy, somewhat reluctant frontwoman, someone who tolerates the attention and spotlight because she has no choice but to write songs, perform and perhaps work through some demons. So when Hunter re-emerged with a backing band and a new name, Lower Dens, for 2010's stunning Twin Hand Movement, the move was jarring but understandable for those familiar with her solo work. With Lower Dens, Hunter remains at the heart of her songs, but she can also camouflage herself in sounds that are darker, foggier and more hypnotic.
Twin Hand Movement was centered on wiry guitar lines and vocals masked in echo-chamber reverb and distortion. But now, after countless shows and several lineup changes, Hunter and Lower Dens have come into their own as a confident, engrossing act with songs to get lost in.
On its new album, Nootropics, Hunter and Lower Dens reinvent themselves again. Out May 1, the record is named for cognitive "smart drugs" and memory enhancers — and, as might be expected, it's far dreamier and more experimental than its predecessor. Hunter composed a majority of these songs from the back seat of a tour van with a small keyboard. (She wasn't even particularly familiar with the instrument.) Trading much of those fuzzy guitars for fluttering synths and droning repetition allowed her to think more freely about the tonality and moods in her songs, as she even matched them to the landscapes she saw rolling by outside the window.
Hunter's songwriting on Nootropics remains anxiously personal and self-reflective: "I feel different now, than I did before," she sings in the pulsating 12-minute jam "In the End Is the Beginning." Yet here she's also ambitiously peering outward, addressing a desire for change and community-building.
The result is a collection of cosmic, existentially curious songs like "Nova Anthem" or "Lamb," which take their time building slowly to pupil-widening moments in which everything clicks. Elsewhere, "Alphabet Song" and "Brains" strike a proper balance between arpeggiated melodies, thrusting bass and discordant guitar static. Still, even amid the icy layers and noise, Hunter's voice is the primary focus of Nootropics, especially as her vocals swell and begin to fold over on themselves, forming spirals of harmony. Those transfixing moments demonstrate the evolution of Jana Hunter and Lower Dens, and give listeners a hint of what she might explore next.