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Lower Dens: Nootropics
Lower Dens’ sophomore album Nootropics is a difficult album to stomach. Though it is a marvellously executed indie record, its tone and subject material is dreamy, but also ethereally dark.
It sounds not simply like an apocalyptic vision of the future, but like an indie band from an apocalyptic future world, taken over by emotional insects and machines, sending back musical documentation of a difficult future. That being said, this is laid-back, surreal, downer, underground rock at its finest. Think dark, weird Radiohead, executed by modern indie rockers in their twenties.
For those who don’t know, Lower Dens is the Baltimore indie band headed by underground folk singer Jana Hunter, the solo artist responsible for 2006’s excellent There’s No Home album.
After disappearing for a couple years, she resurfaced with Lower Dens’ 2010 debut album, Twin-Hand Movement, which introduced a much needed darkness and stoicism into modern day’s jangly, irony-glorifying indie music. With Nootropics, Lower Dens have moved entirely into a realm of their own, one that makes concepts such as ‘indie music’ seem ridiculously Disneylandish and self-deprecating.
The concept behind the album was to look at the relation between technology and organic humanness. Where are the boundaries drawn? Are blankets human? Are bicycles? Are iPads? What of our original human make-up do we want to retain, and what should we technologically get rid of? Lower Dens believe these are questions humans will have to face over the next century, and the album sounds just like that.
A standard makeup of guitars, drums and bass constitutes Lower Dens, but the chord choice and scale structures are bizarre and, again, dark. But this isn’t your average darkness; this is self-confident darkness, in and of itself, without gimmicks. This is waking up six feet under after you’ve been buried, and no one can hear you. But the beauty is rampant.
Out of the ten songs on the album, only two are instant mind-blowers, and those are the singles, ‘Brains’, released months before the album, and the subdued modern classic, ‘Propagation’. These two songs encapsulate the whole album, so if you don’t like one of these two songs, do not go anywhere near the rest of the album, lest you develop levels of confusion and hatred currently unknown.
The other songs are generally morbid, dreamy tales of Earthly dysfunction; some highly lyrical, whilst others purely instrumental. But there is most certainly an inherent beauty in the production and execution of this record, and it definitely stands alone as a unique indie gem; one whose marvellous complexity will no doubt unravel over time, as listeners are able to stomach the difficult content.
Sonically, the essence lies in the details; lying alone and listening with good headphones. The dissonant - though rhythmic - relationship between cymbals, bass and vocals is uncanny.
Nonetheless, it must be noted that, despite its innate dark beauty, this is not an album for everyone. For those who use music to inspire a dinner party or a social event, this is not it, as this album will most likely cause everyone to return home and wonder why they bother to continue living. But for those for whom such a question is already prevalent, this is the soundtrack of the future.
Album opener ‘San Angeles’ will get feet moving and booties shaking, but the rest of the album is decidedly more post-rock oriented. The influences of Pink Floyd only really make a grand appearance on psychedelic tune ‘Lunar Drift’, with its spooky synths and echoing bass line.
‘The Eliminator’ takes the listener back to the eighties again, as the repetitive electronic beat that is used sounds a lot like the 8-bit sounds that were the backdrop for many early eighties video games. Imagine the aforementioned desert wasteland turning 8-bit coloured.
The eighties also dominate in the strummed intro to ‘Martin Rev’, evoking memories of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. You’d almost think the guys of Maserati had wished they were making music a few decades ago.
You've got to love Kurt Vile. Whether or not you like his songs or general aesthetics, no one can deny that he has mastered the ‘like, I’m just an ordinary dude’ artistic ethos exceptionally well. And not only has he been able to carry that grungy/punk torch into the modern world of indie music, he’s been able to do it as himself; a solo guy, a ‘singer-songwriter’, in a time when the very notion of such is enough to make one cringe.
On Wakin on a Pretty Daze, not much has changed since Vile released his debut album with Matador Records, Childish Prodigy, back in 2009. Vile is still creating acoustic guitar, ‘singer-songwriter’ songs punctuated with beautiful guitar lines and lazy but seductive melodies. Vile’s also still singing half-pedestrian/half-stoned-out lyrics about the people he meets, the bars he frequents, the planet he lives on, or the squalor of his apartment that tend to turn everyday banalities and words into epic events – at least in the eyes of a stoner.
Comparing Childish Prodigy’s lead single ‘He’s Alright’ with Pretty Daze’s ‘Wakin of a Pretty Day', it’s clear that Vile’s still trying to say: “Hey Guys. Chill out. Life’s alright. If I can do, it you can do it – right? Oh, yeah, and thanks for listening.”
There’s an instant soothing that comes from Vile’s sound; especially in Cairo, when one has to hop into a car twice a day to join the static rush hour traffic – it’s the perfect music to zone out to.
But unlike many of his contemporaries, Vile is a slow burning candle. Even before his debut album, the songs he released were pretty similar just with lower production quality. In a recent interview, Vile explained that “I know what to do to become the next big thing, but I have no interest in doing that. I want to do this my whole life.” The slow and subtle evolution of Vile’s albums – noticeable to probably only the most voracious listeners – is testament to this.
However, this desire to just cruise through his career on his own terms removes that element of surprise and heavy experimentation from Vile’s work that would really help make it stand out album to album. But at the same time, this aesthetic loyalty is also a large part of his charm.
Therefore, as a result, none of the albums really have any peaks, or troughs, and Pretty Daze is no different.
The entire album is one long, approximately 70 minute, beautiful moment, but there are no real fireworks, no explosive flashes. Stand out tracks are certainly the opener and title track, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day’, as it sweeps the listener off their feet straight away and plunges them into the world of Kurt Vile.
Another notable track is ‘Shame Chamber’ which uses a steady head-nodding groove in order to bouncily deliver lyrics about mankind’s shortcomings as a finger pointing, shame inducing species. “Shame on you, shame on me, and shame on us, for feeling bad in the best way,” says Vile.
But as said, there are no money shots on Pretty Daze, only one long smooth, sensual session. Pretty Daze has also arrived just in time for spring, when hopefully, the daze that Cairenes have come to wake up to becomes a little brighter.