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Album Review

by Lower Dens

Ribbon Music

Review Date
18th May 2012
Reviewed by
Michael Harvey

Nootropics, more commonly known as smart drugs, are used for cognitive and neural enhancement. Baltimore five-piece Lower Dens have named their second album after these somewhat controversial mental aids ("boosting intelligence", of course, is a highly subjective thing), but the icy psychedelia they unveil here is certainly an aural enhancement for the mind. Lower Dens' debut Twin-Hand Movement expanded on the lo-fi feel of vocalist Jana Hunter's solo records where she mined a particularly bent vein of acid-tinged folk, all four-track claustrophobia and spartan arrangements. On Nootropics, Lower Dens move confidently into an altogether more widescreen realm, with songs dealing with language, technology and nature. 

The Kosmische influences of Harmonia and Neu! abound here, as well as more contemporaneous touches of the departed-before-her-time Trish Keenan's Broadcast and the band's Baltimore peers Beach House. Opening cut 'Alphabet Song' unfolds over restrained drums and a loping bass line, with guitars and synth emerging with Hunter's voice low in the mix, yet simmering nevertheless. The skittering percussion and dark synth pulses of "Brains" is an album highlight, segueing into the circular melody of the instrumental 'Stem'. The analogue heartbeat of 'Lion In Winter Pt. 2' provides one of the most "pop" moments on the record, yet is offset by the skeletal drones of it's counterpart. William S. Burroughs-referencing 'Nova Anthem' strips things back to Hunter's voice and synth, and perhaps it's most haunting moment is when Hunter sings "Evolve / Mutate", syllables stretching out as the music swells behind them. The languid and spectral 'In The End Is The Beginning' takes 12 minutes to finish the album, with murky and damaged guitars repeating and evolving over a minimal beat. 

Nootropics flows beautifully from start to finish, and there is much contained within that eludes the listener on perhaps the first spin. Digging deeper, however, one finds all kinds of melodic gems, underpinned by Hunter's keening vocals. There is a particular atmosphere to the music that evokes a somnambulant feel in places, but Lower Dens haven't cheated the listener by merely crafting a sonic sleeping pill -- like the drugs it is named for, this record is far too smart for that.


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