Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Nootropics and the Confounding Creativity of Lower Dens

Douglas Martin is considering a move to Baltimore. Maybe. We all have our preconceived notions of what great artists do and how they go about adding to their canon of great work. I think the most...
By    May 10, 2012

Douglas Martin is considering a move to Baltimore. Maybe.

We all have our preconceived notions of what great artists do and how they go about adding to their canon of great work. I think the most important thing an enduring artist can do is fuck with the expectations of their audience while satisfying themselves creatively. Many contemporary artists do this many different ways, but the beacon of reinvention and exploration I always end up pointing to is Jana Hunter.

The Texas-via-Baltimore-via-Texas singer/songwriter started out as a folkie on the back of a Devendra Banhart co-sign, releasing the fascinatingly weird Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom in 2005, following it up with 2007’s There’s No Home — an unsettlingly quiet record full of droning country-folk ditties and tall grass rustling in southern wind. Then, she restarted her career in Omar Little’s backyard as the frontwoman of rock band Lower Dens, where she took first-wave rock ‘n roll songwriting and combined it with a Kevin Shields-like attention to textural detail, and gave the songs titles like “Batman” and “A Dog’s Dick.”

When the band released “Brains” earlier this year, it felt like the latest in a series of brilliant unexpected reboots. Gone were the 500-pound drums and bleating guitars. In its wake were brittle drum patterns and a driving krautrock groove. Jana Hunter and company’s left turn onto the Autobahn swelled to stratospheric heights, coming out of the other side creating a song which I described as “an alternate soundtrack for the beginning of the world.” Hunter’s career has been one of wild creative stunts from an artist delusional enough to think they’re going to pull it off every time. Of course, each stunt has been pulled off magnificently up to this point. In my neck of the woods, we call this sort of thing “pulling a Radiohead.”

This is going to sound incredibly hyperbolic now matter how I slice it, so I might as well just tell you outright: Listening to “Alphabet Song” for the first time reminded me exactly of how I felt the first time I heard “Everything in Its Right Place,” which is to say it sounded like a great band ripping up and throwing away everything they knew and becoming even greater because of it. If you’ve heard Twin-Hand Movement— which, save for Women’s Public Strain, no album from 2010 have I listened to more frequently– it should be self-evident why I’m saying this. But there are sounds of Twin-Hand Movement here, although they’re delivered in downcast and dramatic ways. “Propagation” sounds like a Gen 1 Lower Dens tune being remained as a slow jam, subtly subtracted by all of the things that make a slow jam sexy. It’s sultry and kind of moody at the same time. “Candy” is more eerie than anything else that could be described as such in the context of Lower Dens, they’re just so good at crafting moods that they could bury one of their best songs in the middle of the tracklisting and all you could say about it is that it’s moody.

I’d be delusional to say Nootropics is the sort of world-beating across-the-board classic Kid A was 11 ½ years ago, but it matches the album pitch-perfectly in thematic scope. As you’ve probably read 1,000 times via other reviews, interviews, and press releases, Nootropics is a direct reference to the mind-expanding drugs of the same name, commonly referred to as “smart drugs.” Thankfully, the academic, high-concept trappings extend to itself in the way of the Human Condition. Hunter explains in an inteview with The Fader: “Humans, at this point in time, still are thinking to make themselves better, more successful animals. It seems fundamental to our culture that we want to just take a pill and make everything better. We want to make ourselves the best thing that we can be but we want to do it in the easiest way possible.”

She does this pretty adroitly with her Will Oldham-like warble, describing the things that are happening to her body in “Brains” much like anyone would call out their body parts during a trip. In an expected blast of elation and drama on “Lamb,“ Hunter calls out, “Touch me, I feel good!” Closer “In the End is the Beginning” feels like flittering, twelve-minute comedown, with synths buzzing and beeping in the background and Hunter agonizing how she feels differently than before. And instead of building up to some sort of major release, the songs keeps its relatively low volume, but eventually opens the gates to growling, low-toned guitars and an immense waft of darkness. This is not a comedown where you get to watch television and each Cheetos. This is an experience that’s going to change you in some deep, serious way.

And that’s how Jana Hunter, and ultimately Lower Dens, have become one of music’s most under-heralded geniuses of their time, by creating a catalog of music that not just changes, but changes you as you listen, making you think of it in a completely different way than you may have thought any music of theirs to begin with. This is called an artist fucking with the expectations of their audience. Jana Hunter has been doing it for years, and with Nootropics, she’s done it in a way that will resonate for years to come.

MP3: Lower Dens – “Brains”

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