REVIEW: Lower Dens - Nootropics

"For any band, Nootropics would be considered a triumph of a record. For Lower Dens though, this record is a declaration of intent. I won’t go so far as to suggest that this is their Murmur, their Funeral, their OK Computer, but damned if it isn’t a giant step towards that end..."

If you look up the term “Nootropics”, you’ll find that the term refers to a class of pharmaceuticals often known as “smart drugs.” The goal of these substances is to enhance things like cognition, memory, and even intelligence. And while the efficacy of these drugs has yet to be determined in any good measure, it’s safe to say that the effectiveness of Lower Dens latest album by the same works in equal measure to both challenge and delight.  

On Twin Hand Movment, the Baltimore quartets 2010 debut, Lower Dens proved that they were a capable unit that may suffer a bit from an overactive affinity for shoegaze. While the songs on that record  hinted at a fuller, dreamier sound, the greenness of the band ultimately shone through making the record one that was still fairly great (in fact one of that years best) but that was positively ripe with unrealized potential. Well, sophomore slump be damned because those minor issues have been resoundedly dealt with on  Nootropics, and in doing so Lower Dens has jettisoned their status as a band to keep an eye on - a younger cousin, if you will, to bigger, more well known Baltimore bands (Wye Oak, Beach House) – and become a band hands down has created some of the most engaging, most thought provoking music so far this year.

Nootropics isn’t an easy record. This isn’t a record you put on in the background, and it isn’t a record that gives up all of it’s subtleties at once, if at all. In Nootropics, Lower Dens have created a piece of art that really requires your time and devoted attention to fully appreciate its scope.  It is the very defnition of a "headphones record", and one that while it may come off as sounding chilly, almost mechanical at first,  reveals layer upon layer of humanity and soul with each repeated listen.

On tracks like “Brains” (the first single) and its sequel (in both placement and name)“Stem” the band as a whole shines as they take the familiar beats of Kraut rock and bury it deep in an isolation tank sea of dream. Along with album lead “Alphabet Song” these songs are sort of what you would have expected the next Lower Dens album to sound like, and in fact they exceed those expectations in brilliant fashion. But the bands most impressive moments occur in the latter 2/3 of the record, specifically with the unveiling of Jana Hunter’s vocals as a secret weapon of what appears to be unlimited strength, power and imagination.

On the tracks “Lamb”, “Candy” and “Nova Anthem”, there’s an assuredness, a strength in Hunters voice that punches through all of the clicks and fuzz that her band mates have surrounded her that at times can take the listeners breath away. About two minutes into “Lamb” there is a chill bump inducing moment where the noise subsides leaving only Hunter harmonizing with herself , her voice racing gloriously to the heavens like some sort of rocket of the soul. It may well be the climax of the album and it colors everything that comes after with soulful hue that the record thankfully never sheds. A while back Hunter tweeted out of something to the effect “Bitch can SING” in response to listening to Jen Wasner’s Flock of Dimes material (her side project from Wye Oak). One can only hope that she gives herself the same amount of credit, because the performance she has delivered on Nootropics is certainly more than deserving of any of the expletives and superlatives that will be laid upon it.

For any band, Nootropics would be considered a triumph of a record. For Lower Dens though, this record is a declaration of intent. I won’t go so far as to suggest that this is their Murmur, their Funeral, their OK Computer, but damned if it isn’t a giant step towards that end, and that level of greatness most assuredly won’t be long in coming. This is a record that continue to grow in notoriety as the years go on. It will be the go to point for fans of the band that they can point to and say “Right there, that’s where they figured out exactly who they are.” It’s always thrilling to see a band you like reach that point, especially so early on in their career, and even though Nootropics is barely a few days old, now that they’ve found themselves I simply cannot wait to see what Lower Dens is going to do next.