Lower Dens’ 2010 debut penned a story of stylistic diffidence and eventual standstill. The Portland 4-piece wouldn’t buy all the way in, trapped in an uncomfortable in-between for the duration. On one song, vibrant melody. On the next, unshakable lethargy. Such flip-flopping veiled any semblance of continuity to the affair and thus left quite a timid impression by album’s end.
Sophomore record Nootropics regrettably treads similar terrain — only this time out, the songs appear divided between the will of humans and automatons.
The infectious energy of the group’s kraut reverence has been flung by the wayside, and in its stead, perfunctory motorik. ‘Brains’ shuffles along with pent-up vigor in tow, but it’s never unleashed. ‘Stem’, which ambles at customary tempo, doesn’t even sport the promise of a payoff. Just a clean, hollow nip of kosmiche that’s perhaps most intriguing once the bottom falls out from under the track and the guitar is afforded greater resonance. Alas, 20 seconds do not redeem an entire song’s worth of sludge.
As has been the case from the very beginning with Lower Dens, Jana Hunter’s voice remains terrific — the sort of pipes that manage to hew sufficient space to seduce regardless of the surrounding din. This rings truer than ever on standout ‘Lamb’, Hunter bending over backwards atop moody if rudimentary atmospheric pop, her billowy vocal gymnastics crying out for a helping hand and culminating in a stirring group chant that is then buttressed by drums to produce a fearless march into the darkness. A fervent, crystal-clear stand against the suffocating fog. ‘Nova Anthem’ also hands Hunter the reins early on, allowing her to feel out the song’s parameters before merely supplementing her natural charisma. By playing to the band’s strengths — which is to say getting out of the frontwoman’s way when she’s on a roll — this pair registers as the most sincere and poignant Lower Dens tunes to date.
Any flicker of warmth is blown dry moments later. ‘Candy’ is a sleepwalking entry that would rather indulge in gloom than grant Hunter an opportunity to shine. Meanwhile, ‘Lion In Winter Pt. 2′ is the foulest of the lot, a machine drum beat and kitschy character hurling out robotic pop slop that’s about as cold, antiseptic, and soulless as anything to have surfaced this year.
‘Propagation’, ‘Lion In Winter Pt. 1′ and ‘Alphabet Song’, for their part, are tokens of unfulfilled potential. Openings present themselves for rousing finishes, yet the act opts for slow-rock slurries or instrumental simmers. It prefers dwelling in the motions to dictating them.
All too often, Lower Dens’ cauldron bubbles in mid-gear, not quite mustering the heat to boil over and brand these songs as their own.
Hunter drops the ball, too, and on the 12-minute closer no less. ‘In The End Is The Beginning’ is likely the band’s summit from a strictly musical standpoint, a deliberate slither that’s high on knotty tension, a lone, roiling electric guitar entering the fray and slipping out of the frame just as quickly, disorienting the listener in a daze that’s high on drama and outright begging for a big delivery to bring it home. Once more, the key to unlocking the door does not arrive. Hunter plays it close to the vest in the single instance when theatrics are positively in order, and the deft use of space is ultimately wasted on an aimless excursion that could have carried the gravitas of an expedition. A hear-me-roar declaration of self.
On paper, the pieces are there for a rewarding record. A damn shame those writing it just can’t get on the same page.