Hot oL’ Baltimore Part 1: Lower Dens’ Nootropics

Charm City, indeed. Maryland’s most populous (and well recognized) city is making a name for itself in the indie-rock world. No longer just the setting for David Simon’s much beloved The Wire, B’more is rapidly become home to a burgeoning indie-rock scene led by the likes of the Lower Dens, Beach House, and Wye Oak. (Now not all the members of the bands were necessarily born and breed in or around Baltimore, but, then again, how many of the rockers now living in the Borough of Brooklyn can claim it as their ancestral home?) Not only is the City of Firsts filled with great young bands but even their long suffering baseball team is perched atop their division (as of this writing anyways). Perhaps there is something in the water, something that breeds musical ingenuity and creativity? (You know like why they claim a slice of pizza or a bagel from New York is better than anywhere else? I’ll agree to the latter and would kill for an H&H bagel right now. Alas.)

Straight out of Baltimore comes Nootropics, the second full-length album by the Lower Dens. This group caught my ear at the beginning of last year with their phenomenal debut record Twin Hand Movement, which was described to me by a friend as ChillWave – undoubtedly a term coined to allude to the 70s/80s New Wave phenomenon and to perhaps beget the notion of a “movement.” (Without digressing too much, in my opinion, “ChillWave” is basically an updated version of Shoegazer rock that adds the production/synth elements of New Wave and layers in some early English Downtempo and TripHop. Is it a movement? Only time will tell.) The distinguishing characteristic of Twin Hand was the mix of the haunting vocals of Jana Hunter (the band’s lead singer), a sleepy, layered guitar section tinged with a Southwestern flair, and a Lo-Fi drone – or the sound of contemplation. Thus, when I ventured to see them earlier this year at the Subterranean, I was expecting to be soothed into an almost dream-like rapture. Nothing could be further from what I witnessed. Showcasing the new tracks from their forthcoming album, Jana and crew played loud, distortion heavy tracks that went on for what felt like an eternity, which was a pleasant surprise. (I do enjoy it when band turns up the volume.)

Welcome to the world of Nootropics, a break from the more languid Twin Hand Movement towards a fuller, robust and heavy sound with increased synthesized and electronic elements. It’s as though the Lower Dens had a musical muzzle removed from their instruments. The record begins with the dream-like prologue, “Alphabet Song”, and already you hear a more polished and precise sound, where before songs wandered, now they flow towards a definite point. If you listen closely, you might hear a striking resemblance to Portishead’s (comeback) Third and recent Danger Mouse produced records. Things then turn decidedly up-tempo on “Brains” and “Stem”, heavy on, and almost foregrounding, the percussion (an element in sparse quantities on the first record). With Jana’s, at times, Nico-esque vocals, “Brains” has the unique feel of a neo-psychedelic folk song that builds into a strange gothic dance track, and, then, it shifts gears straight into “Stem” with its high electronic piano chords, eerily reminiscent of some bizarre circus tune. (Because I’ve been listening to the digital version there is this unfortunate two to three second lag between tracks suggesting that the two songs are really supposed to blend into each other but there is the digital rub.)

If this is beginning to sound as though the record is a journey into an odd, dark world, then I’m achieving my goal. Although I have yet to read anything to this effect, Nootropics feels like a concept album in sound and theme. After repeated listens, I feel as though I’m passing through layers of human consciousness and experience. Perhaps, this is intentional as the title of the record refers to foods, (herbal) supplements, and drugs that enhance memory and cognitive function, otherwise known as, “smart drugs”. (For the language nerds, “Nootropics” comes from the Greek words nous, or “mind”, and trepein, “to bend or turn”.) The opening feels heady, as in located in the head or mind, and then moves towards the guttural and the base, i.e., the body. At the midpoint, the record appears to take us outside the mind and body, starting with the two part “Lion in Winter“. The first “movement” is dirge-like and evokes a passage towards. The second part shifts tempo and evokes an awakening, along with a very Kraut-rock sounding synth line. (It also reminds me a little of LCD Soundsystem from the last album.) The journey concludes with two slow, pensive (and some might say) sleepy tracks. On the whole, I think this is a fascinating listen. Is it for everybody? Probably not. I worry it might sit on the darker side for most, but if you enjoyed the last Portishead record and the work of bands like God Speed You Black Emperor, I think the Lower Dens newest adventure will resonate with you.

Listen to Nootropics in its entirety here.

In more light-hearted news:

  • “I’m Getting To Old for This” (truncated version):
    • Andrew Bird at the Roosevelt Auditorium, May 12th, 2012 – What can I say, I sat with my friends in a gorgeous old world style proscenium stage theater and marveled (yet again) at the power and beauty of Andrew Bird’s music. Playing mostly tracks off his new album, the band was pitch perfect and precise. Despite being many rows up, it sounded and felt like Andrew was singing to me in the intimate haunts he used to frequent in Chicago. The “worst” part about the show was having to sit through the entire set, especially when so many of the songs on the new album are infused with that giddy and mirthful energy that makes your body want to move and shake. Alas, I’ll have to save all those dance steps for July when he opens for Wilco at a minor league baseball park in Geneva, Illinois. This time there will be not only snacks but fireworks too! (Beats Tippecanoe and Tyler). P.S. He ended with stirring rendition of perhaps my favorite song, “Fake Palindromes.”
    • La Sera at Township, May 15th, 2012 – In Chicago there is this saying, “if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes”, or just deal with it. (Foolishly) Riding my bike up to see La Sara (aka Katy Goodman and crew), I could see thunder and lighting and a steady wind slowing my progress. Chilled by the brisk ride, I welcomed the tiny venue’s warmth only to find myself sweating profusely within in minutes. A boy can’t win. But I wasn’t alone, the Los Angeles based La Sera found the tiny venue to be quite sauna-like, in fact Katy asked the crowd for a towel mid show. (Note to self: bring handkerchief next time. Yes, not only do I own a handkerchief but multiple ones. It reminds me of my grandfather, who used one to dry his brow while he was painting.) Despite the heat, La Sera shone through and Katy even ventured into the crowd to play a solo on bended knees in true rock star style. (For those not familiar with La Sera, their music is more peppy and whimsy than guitar rock so it was definitely unexpected.) The show was an energetic anodyne and Katy definitely had a great time chatting with the crowd. If you get a chance, definitely, check them out. You will be smiling afterwards.
  • Check out this great conversation between St. Vincent (Annie Clark) and tUnE-yArDs (Merrill Garbus) brought to my attention by 70dayweekend.com: click here.
  • Riot Fest! Is a festival that has been going on in Chicago for some years now geared more towards the fans of Punk and Alt-Metal. In the past, they’ve had some great bands in their lineup but 2012 is far and away the best: Elvis Costello, Iggy and the Stooges, Alkaline Trio, Promise Ring, and the Jesus and Mary Chain! Check out the full bill here.  It’s like they raided my adolescent/college-era mixtapes! Plus they are expanding to Philly!

All for now, I’ll be back soon with another band from Baltimore creating some buzz.

a.a.

5 thoughts on “Hot oL’ Baltimore Part 1: Lower Dens’ Nootropics

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