Summary

Lower Dens' 2010 debut LP Twin-Hand Movement was a largely overlooked moment of understated brilliance. Native Texan turned Baltimore transplant Jana Hunter had been quietly toiling in the throes of experimental indie rock for years before forming an official band around her uneasily atmospheric solo songs, and though there was no dramatic shift in style or tone, something crystallized under the Lower Dens namesake that hadn't been there before. Finding a foggy middle ground between Motorik-Krautrock rhythms and the most dimly lit corners of shoegaze, Twin-Hand Movement built an atmosphere that was instantly transfixing though deceptively simple. Following a series of singles and a few other scattered appearances, the band returns with sophomore effort Nootropics, expanding their sound only slightly with more electronic elements. While less guitar-centric, the same narcotic feel of the first album carries through here, a patient continuation of the languid summer night soundscape that Twin-Hand Movement set up so well. In some ways, Nootropics is a series of continuations. The two-part "Lion in Winter" begins with a bed of ominous synth tones before abruptly emerging into a new wave-leaning, subdued pop track driven by tinny electronic drums and bumbling synth bass. The minimal churn of "Brains" continues without a pause into the scratchy Neu-inspired addendum "Stem." Moments like these make the album feel like an ongoing extension of itself, circular themes of anxiety and displacement reappearing through the clouds of moody melodies. Hunter's ghostly vocals are sometimes reminiscent of Baltimore peer Victoria Legrand of Beach House, calling out softly from under layers of wistfully beautiful noise. The similarities are striking on "Propagation," a dirge filled with longing that duets Eno-esque fuzz guitars with a humid vocal line. The moment that brings everything into focus on the album is the last 45 seconds of "Lamb." This darkly brilliant composition goes from tersely building verses into a soaring arc and unexpectedly fading into disintegrating noise as it ends. Much like Belong's blurry melodies tangled in webs of noise or even the holy sonics of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, it's in this brief moment of transcendence that Lower Dens achieve something so otherworldly it's impossible to ignore. Like its predecessor and the earliest Beach House records, Nootropics is so mired in restraint it will fail to grab many ears on the first go-round. However, once listeners get their heads around the sound, it's a definite on-repeat player. Free of flash, Nootropics is the sound of smoldering. It's the sound of what's left behind after the fireworks display, and the gentle dread of smoky ashes floating softly down from the sky onto an empty beach. ~ Fred Thomas