Courtesy of the artist
Swaddled in echoes and hauntingly detached, Jana Hunter's powerful voice stands out in Lower Dens' "Brains."
Swaddled in echoes and hauntingly detached, Jana Hunter's powerful voice stands out in Lower Dens' "Brains." Courtesy of the artist
Artist: Lower Dens
Every day this week, Song of the Day will showcase a track by an artist playing the South by Southwest music festival. For NPR Music's full coverage of SXSW — complete with full-length concerts, studio sessions, blogs, Twitter feeds, video and more — visit npr.org/sxsw. And don't miss our continuous 100-song playlist, The Austin 100, which features much more of the best music the festival has to offer.
Hypnotic and claustrophobic, Lower Dens' songs are suited for escapism, for drowning out the din and zoning out to their transfixing charms. The band's stunning 2010 debut, Twin Hand Movement, contained an equally soothing and seething array of icy guitar melodies and fuzzy noise that coaxed listeners into Jana Hunter's musical world. As the band's enigmatic center, Hunter came off as a reluctant frontwoman, shyly submerging her heavenly vocals in the songs' haze. Her lyrics felt anxious, inward-looking and difficult to pin down, yet infinitely open to interpretation.
Two years and hundreds of live shows later, Nootropics takes a confident step forward, embracing the mystery of Hunter's voice and expanding in musical scope. Amid relentless touring, Hunter found herself writing a majority of the material for the album on a keyboard plugged into headphones in the backseat of her van. The band has also augmented its lineup: Guitarist William Adams and bassist Geoffrey Graham are joined by new members Nate Nelson on drums and Carter Tanton on keyboards.
The result is an experimental record which trades layers of guitars for swaths of synths and droning repetition. As such, songs like "Lamb" and "Nova Anthem" — not to mention the 12-minute closer "In the End Is the Beginning" — take their time building to gorgeous, pupil-widening moments of clarity where everything clicks in full. Hunter says Nootropics is more of an optimistic look into the world and out to the cosmos, searching for meaning and addressing a need to change. It's an ambitious mission statement to go along with a richer sound.
The album's boldest song, the up-tempo "Brains," opens with a Can-esque thrust of bass and drums which patiently adds guitars, then a fluttering mess of keyboards, and finally vocals. Swaddled in echoes and hauntingly detached, Hunter's powerful voice stands out, serving more like another instrument in the mix than a means of delivering discernible lyrical messages. But as her vocals grow into angelic spirals of harmonies and the synthesizers fold over on top of themselves, "Brains" creates a stirring moment, suitable for closing your eyes and getting lost.