Lower Dens - Nootropics

I’ve had the digital promo of Nootropics, the sophomore album from Baltimore dream-rock band Lower Dens, for a couple of months now. And according to my iTunes, I’ve listened to its 10 songs an average of 106 times. I’ve mentioned this a few times on Stereogum already, but it almost immediately became my daughter’s favorite album of all time. My kid just turned three, but putting her to bed is this massive ordeal; I need to hold her and bounce her and pace back and forth across her bedroom for something like an hour, until she drifts off. By the end of it, my back is screaming at me. And her attachment to this album has become intense and kind of weird; she cries hard if I try to put on anything else. But here’s a measure of how good this album is: I haven’t gotten entirely sick of it yet.

That’s mostly because I can see where my kid is coming from. Nootropics is a world-class sleeping aid, and I don’t mean that as a slight. When the band released their debut Twin-Hand Movement a couple of years ago, hazy drift was a big part of it. They were mostly a guitar band then, and their sound worked by lazily and comfortably wrapping all their different guitar lines around each other, forming these intuitive tapestries of sound. They reminded me a bit of Luna then; they had that same easy, instinctual interplay, like they’d been born playing guitar with one another. They hadn’t, of course. Bandleader Jana Hunter is a former freak-folk artist, and the band had tons of interpersonal problems and lineup shifts after the album came out. But that calm, familiar sense of drift is still all over Nootropics; it’s just been pushed in some different directions.

Among other things, Nootropics is the band’s krautrock move, the one where they discover the repetitive possibilities of weirdly-timed motorik drum-tics and stretched-out-beyond-the-sunset guitar tones. And Hunter’s voice — a controlled, crystalline alto — fits those sounds perfectly. But unlike a lot of other bands who play around with krautrock, Lower Dens haven’t let their experiments affect their songwriting. I don’t know what Hunter is singing about most of the time, but she has a great ear for chiming Sigur Rós-style melodic flights, and so her choruses have an emotional pull to them. And when the band is working at peak capacity, there’s also a rare immediacy to them. “Lion In Winter Pt. 2,” my favorite song on the album, drifts out of the formless ambient guitar-fog of “Pt. 1″ and into a pulsing low-toned synthesizer. That keyboard sounds a few times, then falls into a pattern that sounds something like mid-’80s New Order being heard from the apartment next door. The rest of the band falls in behind that riff right away. It’s a beautiful moment, and it’s a catchy one too.

Lower Dens don’t strike me as the sort of band who will be happy to learn about their album’s putting-kids-to-bed uses. In interviews, Hunter has been talking a lot about singing from the point of view of a robot and stuff like that. But in experimenting and pushing themselves, Lower Dens have come up with a sound that works as a potent calming agent — the sort of thing that bleeds beautifully into the background, whatever you may be doing. Like fellow Baltimore dreamers Beach House — whose Victoria Legrand has some serious vocal similarities with Hunter — they make music that hits some primal relaxation button in your brain. And that’s a button you probably need someone to hit every once in a while.

Nootropics is out now on Ribbon Music. It’s streaming here, and our Progress Report interview with Hunter is here. But the album at eMusic.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Santigold’s long-awaited sophomore album Master Of My Make-Believe.
• Father John Misty’s post-Fleet Foxes solo turn Fear Fun.
• Ramona Falls’ intricate indie-pop effort Prophet.
• Norah Jones’s Danger Mouse collaboration Little Broken Hearts.
• Rufus Wainwright’s arch pop return Out Of The Game.
• Light Asylum’s self-titled death-disco debut.
• Kwes.’s spare electro-pop EP Meantime.
• The all-star Every Mother Counts benefit compilation.
• The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s new album Aufheben.
• Bobby Conn’s latest Macaroni.

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Comments (57)
  1. I knew you were gonna fuck this one up Stereogum….

    • Michael_  |   Posted on May 1st, 2012 0

      Other and more-liked Michael, you beat me to the punch!

      Anyhow, I first didn’t get this band but I’m slowly working my way into this listen. It still kind of irks me about the vocal similarities with Victoria Legrand, but man, do I love a good nap…

  2. i love this album but I don’t like this weird back-handed compliment review.

  3. why doesn’t an 8.2 warrant a Best New Music from pitchfork? i know pitchfork produced their video for propagation…conflict of interest? that kind of thing can mean a lot to a band on the rise. im stumped.

    • As someone who worked there for a while, I can tell you that 8.2 is right in that borderland area where things can go BNM or not. I can guarantee you there was probably a half-hour conversation at a meeting over whether this one warranted BNM or not. But I agree; it should’ve gotten it.

    • Michael_  |   Posted on May 1st, 2012 +5

      If it’s P4k recognition you’re worried about, it’s probably better in the long-run to get an 8.2 with no BNM affiliation than an 8.2 with it. Those are the albums whose quality always seem to grow on the staff by the time the end of the year list comes out. Two of my favorite albums from last year (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s Belong and Trash Talk’s Awake) both scored 8.2s with BNM and didn’t make the year-end list whatsoever. Meanwhile, Beyonce’s 4, Wild Flag’s self-titled all got 8.0s while Colin Stetson got an 8.2 and made it on there. If you ask me, the sweet spot non-BNM review on Pitchfork sits somewhere between a 7.5 to 8.3, because those albums have the most potential to bloom to their potential as the year wears on.

      • More examples:

        Wild Beasts — Smother getting an 8.2 but no BNM.

        Fever Ray getting an 8.1 and a BNM. Also landing in every sane man’s Top 10 of that year.

        However, Death Grips with an 8.7 and BNM? I feel that was overdoing it.

        • Michael_  |   Posted on May 1st, 2012 +1

          Oh, so we’re talking again I see. Death Grips slight and all…

          By the way — In the end, neither of us had the best Coachella guest post. This broad upstaged us all: http://www.mydesert.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012204250351

          • Indeed! Neat article. Really highlights how much happier everyone at Coachella can be when it isn’t 108 degrees Deathenheit.

            Her dig on my friends Other Lives was funny. My favorite part was when she mentioned her camera died and she felt liberated. When Sgum told me they didn’t need photos or video for my write up, I took it to heart. It really is a whole lot more fun seeing shows without taking pics & videos.

        • Shabazz Palaces got an 8.8 and BNM, and I think of Death Grips as 2012′s Shabazz Palaces in terms of what they’re bringing to alternative hip-hop.

          P.S. Shabazz Palaces

          • Robenalt, that is goddamn blasphemy. Without going into too much detail, let’s just focus on lyrical content. Care to explain how Palaceer’s philosophical and properly enunciated rhymes could even be approached by Death Grips’… lyrics? Yelling? Cursing?

            It’s funny you went straight to Shabazz, because that’s mainly what took me off guard. Black Up is so much better than The Money Store it’s laughable. I actually like a few things about the Money Store, but to even have it standing in line to enter the Shabazz Palaces ballpark is unthinkable.

            BTW, YTMND. Michael_ thinks I’m John Cena or something. Still undecided on how I feel about that.

          • Michael_  |   Posted on May 1st, 2012 0

            I think this a fitting post / moment for us to wrap this one and hug it out, raptor.

          • Michael_  |   Posted on May 1st, 2012 +3

            Downvoters ruin what could have been a beautiful moment and fairytale conclusion to last week’s events that started right in the Album of the Week post. I had this Macho Man and Miss Elizabeth Wrestlemania VII reunion image ready to go and everything:

            I’ll be back on the ‘Gum when it’s fun again. If it’s not fun, it isn’t worth doing anymore.

          • MICHAEL_ HUG TIME!!!

            I didn’t know how great I had it until Robenalt goes and disgraces the Shabazz.

          • Also, I hope I’m Miss Elizabeth.

            That post makes me smile :)

          • Raptor I see what you’re saying and maybe I didn’t phrase what I was trying to say correctly. I was thinking in the realm of hype/context of the two albums. Both Shabazz and Death Grips had some acknowledgement, yet not BNM level acknowledgement and then with two bands respective sophomore LPs, they were catapulted into the blogosphere limelight.
            And as for music I just thought that the sheer weirdness and peculiarity of both bands would be enough to compare them to one another.
            Shabazz Palaces brings the style and coolness that hip-hop is missing, while Death Grips brings the passion and fire that hip-hop is missing. Not to say that both bands don’t bring elements of both categories out on their own.

          • In the realm of hype/context, the two albums are definitely comparable for the exact reasons you lay out. The 8.7 for Money Store and 8.8 for Black Up is what got me comparing the two at first.

            The greatest distinction between the two is diversity. Black Up kept you on your toes, changing up the beat every other minute. The Money Store is a blast out the gate, but I feel lags in the middle because it’s nothing too different from the initial onslaught. For once I actually feel an album would have benefited from being shorter. I think if The Money Store was 10 tracks instead of 13, I’d have less issue with the 8.7. For the record, the first two and last two tracks are my faves on The Money Store.

            Again, my biggest gripe is the lyrics. Since are tendencies lead us to throw The Money Store under the large hip-hop umbrella, I gotta wonder why his lyrics are so unintelligible. I mean I have no problem at all with muddied lyrics in rock (BORIS for an example) but with hip-hop I kind of like to take a line here and there and break it down and enjoy it. There aren’t many lyrical moments worth repeating on The Money Store, except maybe, “Bitch, you must be smoking rocks!” — take that as you will.

            I feel Black Up was a game changer. Even though it didn’t get received as such (read: Stereogum’s Top 50 Albums of 2011), which is why there is a group of us that praise Shabazz so highly whenever we can (read: my previous comment).

            But maybe “.1″ is a big enough distinction. We are the Tenth Percent.

          • This is why I wish The Money Store had been album of the week because I feel that even because of the context around The Money Store, I find myself enjoying it more than I would have. We know that it’s supposedly hip-hop but they throw so many left hooks that it keeps us wondering what hip-hop is, and then we begin to wonder what genre is, all while enjoying the music.
            With Black Up, we know that it’s hip-hop throughout, and even though other sounds and left hooks are thrown in, through and through we know it’s still hip-hop.
            The ambiguous nature of The Money Store is what is so entertaining to me. And the lyrics (sorry other RJ) are basically the type of anti-hero lyrics that Goblin should have had.
            I guess Shabazz is like other-wordly hip-hop, whereas Death Grips is like sidewalk drummer hip-hop.

      • interesting. im not aware of the politicking that goes on behind the scenes but i would be impressed if that kind of consideration and time was given to one record in particular when they are reviewing over 1,000 a year (a process that begins months before the number is published). historically speaking Lower Dens has seemingly plateaued over at P4k. if you recall Twin-Hand was reviewed much the same way upon its release critically speaking and it didn’t get no year-end love. i’d guess the band isn’t worried about it so thats probably all that matters!

        • I thought that I had the system figured out where Pitchfork would give a Best New Music to the artist/band if the album for consideration was either an excellent debut album (Black Up and Money Store) or it was a return to form or peak for an artist/band after many releases (Port of Morrow by the Shins and Let England Shake by PJ Harvey come to mind). There seems to be grey area between 8 and 8.3 where the argument could be made for or against an artist/band for a BNM stamp.

          One of my favorite bands, Liars, are a bit of an anomaly because they have managed to get a BNM for each of their last three releases even though the ratings progressively got worst with each release. 9.0 (Drum’s Not Dead) to 8.5 (Liars) to 8.1 (Sisterworld). Lower Dens, on the other hand, got a tenth of a point higher from first to current release (8.1 to 8.2) and still didn’t merit a BNM for either album.

          I hate it when people include links in posts, but for anyone who is interested, I just found this article from 2009 (http://list0mania.wordpress.com/2009/10/02/data-crunching-the-pitchfork-p2k-top-200-albums-list/) that analyzes the points of our current discussion in regards to Pitchfork’s Top 200 List for the noughties (2000′s). It includes bar graphs and pie charts for the visual learners out there.

          The best bit of information for those of you who are too lazy to read articles with statistics/don’t have to attention span to (and have stopped reading my comment probably) is the quote, “Still, this stands as evidence that ‘Best New Music’ is not necessarily the same thing as ‘Music with the Best Staying Power’ or ‘Most Important Music,’”which is made in regard to the fact that 70 albums released before they started handing out the award (2003) wouldn’t qualify with the criteria of an 8.3 or higher. This observation along with that of a poster above me (and most other critics, honestly) hold with the statement that a person’s opinion of a piece of music is most likely going to change over time. Way to state the obvious, huh?

          I would say that the BNM award is more of a “highly recommended at the moment” stamp from editor and staff to reader. We could scoff at this and the rating system but “real talk,” they sell records to certain crowds and sadly, sometimes spark a zeitgeist in the music world. You could say I am being facetious, but think of how different the musical landscape might be if certain “indie” superstars were dismissed as being pretentious or bland by a publication with as much power in the “indie” world as Pitchfork. If you get a bunch of hype from their site, people will buy your records and go see you play. I commend their ability but at the same time, it is a bit scary. I’ll never forget what they did to the Black Kids.

          • Great Comment! I’m surprised they didn’t just give Sisterworld an 8.1 and no BNM, but Sisterworld really is amazing.

            I guess I just take more question into the numbering system. Like when they gave “This Is Happening” & “Sound of Silver” the same exact score. Or why albums like Sisterworld and Fever Ray get 8.1s.

            “…think of how different the musical landscape might be if certain “indie” superstars were dismissed as being pretentious or bland by a publication with as much power in the “indie” world as Pitchfork.”

            Yeah the Black Kids example comes to mind. I remember when they posted it and initially I thought they were too focused on Pitchfork Music Festival to be bothered with writing up a review explaining how a band changed their production style so drastically that it erased Pitchfork’s reasoning for BNMing them in the first place. As we well know from this site, a picture can get a point across much better than words.

            Also let’s not forget the Jet reviews.

            I have no issue with Death Grips getting BNM, at all. I just think it should’ve been an 8.1 to 8.4. But an 8.7 puts it too close to Chromatics, Destroyer, Shabazz & Spiritualized territory. And after listening to The Money Store, it has no business being considered in the same light as those 4.

          • Yeah, the Black Kids dilemma (it probably wasn’t much of one to many people) almost made me lose all respect for the people running that publication. Sure, it is there website and they can do as they please, but they basically hyped the band up and then almost killed their career with that review. I am not that big of a fan of the band, but I don’t see the difference from the production and source material on Partie Traumatic (which from a “pop” standpoint, my next point, sounded better than the demos) from something like Body Talk by Robyn. Maybe the band is more juvenile than her, but they are pop acts swinging for the fences. Sorry if anyone is offended by my comparison of The Black Kids to Robyn but that is what I hear.

            I don’t feel bad at all for Jet because they’ve sold millions of records and don’t need a website like Pitchfork (who probably kept reviewing their records as an inside joke) to validate the fact that they’ve done pretty well for an international band. It is disrespectful, but I don’t think as bad as the above situation.

            I respectfully disagree with you in terms of The Money Store. I didn’t think I would like it, because I wasn’t a fan of the band after hearing the singles from Ex-Military. I just shrugged off that album, but then gave this one a listen and was blown away. I love hip-hop from different angles, and this album reminded me of the Saul Williams/Trent Reznor collaboration, The Inevitable Rise and Fall of Niggy Tardust. While I love that album, this one felt like much more of a successful experiment in terms of merging so many genres and keeping a certain raw aesthetic throughout. Black Up was my favorite hip-hop release last year (followed closely by Danny Brown’s XXX (which would maybe fall in the middle of these two records on a spectrum)), but to my ears it doesn’t sound as revolutionary as The Money Store (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

            I don’t even know that I feel right comparing Shabazz Palaces and Death Grips which is why those pitchfork numbers have become trivial to me (you might not pick that up from my comment above but that is how I feel). I think that the acknowledgement that those albums are great is good enough for me if more people end up listening to them (I know that this isn’t enough for everybody which is fine). To sum up my feelings about Death Grips, WIXIW was my most anticipated album of the year until last week when I heard The Money Store and learned that Death Grips have another release slated for later this year. It is hard to explain, but The Money Store sounds like the future to me (maybe a dystopian Clock Work Orange-like future) and I love it.

          • *their*

            Sorry for the super long comment. Like Michael_, I want to be like Michael_.

          • You guys are typing way to many freakin’ words.

  4. I’m going with Michael_ on this one. The vocals sounds too similar to those of Victoria Legrand, which in itself is actually a good thing. However, the musical accompaniment also sounds like Beach House, especially the watery, detuned synths on the opening to “Propagation”.
    Admittedly, I haven’t listened to very much of Nootropics, but it almost just seems like a teaser for Bloom or something…
    My money is on Fear Fun for this week.

  5. i’m kind of surprised that you’re all surprised about how good this record is

    another thing i’m surprised about: you all give a shit about what pitchfork thinks WAY too much

    • it’s not necessarily that they care about what pitchfork thinks, but that it’s important to pay attention to it because what pitchfork says can have a pretty large impact in terms of reception, unfortunately.
      as dumb as pitchfork may seem sometimes, their opinions about music still matter because a significant amount of people read pitchfork regularly and nothing else.

      • …and if people like you keep writing about how much it matters, it will probably continue to do so…but if we don’t site Pitchfork way too many times for way too long at a music site other than Pitchfork, maybe it won’t matter so much.

        The truth is – there’s no doubt that they’ve provided large-scale exposure for bands that possibly wouldn’t have bubbled up from obscurity, and they’ve been right a bunch of times (one important example for me is Broken Social Scene, although I first got turned on to them on an old internet radio station called AccuRadio). They’ve also shown that at other times, that they’re capable of having contradictory standards, flip-flop disease, straight up shitty taste, and their writers can be suckers for superficial backstories, image-over-substance cases, this-is-cool-because-no-one-thinks-its-cool trappings, etc. The idea that they gave those dung splatterings called Le Loup albums scores of at least 6.0 is laughable.

        Now I’ve gone and talked about them more…Sorry, S-Gum! Thanks for giving us a comment section.

      • hey i’m just remarking on the lengths (and i do mean lengths) people here will go to to explain or talk about or complain about a website that makes money pretending to judge art

        at least this site provides a less biased forum – and by less biased, i mean people can give feedback and create a more balanced approach but still giving a shit about what pitchfork thinks way too much

        • Sorry, I am a law student, so I go to great lengths to state and discuss my opinions. I forgot that trying to have a discussion on a message board is lame. I should have just said, “Pitchfork should stick goddamned dicks in its collective ears and mouths to wash out all of the bullshit,” got my two thumbs up, and then went back to studying.

    • SURPRISE!!!!

  6. Oh dude, new Brian Jonestown Massacre? Anyone know if it’s any good?

  7. This was kind of a slow week to be honest, I mean Nootropics was good but I think it underwhelmed me a bit seeing as how strong “Brains” was. I absolutely loved the last track though, great krautrock tribute

  8. Well, you’re certainly right — this is putting me to sleep. This music is listless, and the singer looks uninterested.

    I’m tired of people believing that ridiculous experimentation justifies being fragile, emotionless, and non-threatening. People are talking about Death Grips now. While I’m not a fan of their album, it’s definitely a step in the right direction for music. It relieving to know that there are people like Stefan Burnett to combat this doe-eyed fool.

  9. I don’t get why indie blogs are all about celebrating music they rightly admit “I have no idea what she’s saying most of the time”. Are indie musicians becoming so obsessed with trying to remain in their insular world, that everything has to be unintelligible now? It’s like the more mainstream “indie” gets the more garbled the vocals becomes on every fucking song. If you can actually sing, we should be able to fucking hear it.

  10. Lower Dens: Putting three-year-old girls and significantly older men to sleep for a couple of weeks now. . .

  11. Seeing these guys live in Baltimore a couple times and thought I’d like them better live, but it was really underwhelming. They seemed to lack some of the soulfulness that makes bands like Beach House seem genuine and interesting. Where BH and others will throw in rhythm changes or -gasp- a chorus to vary the texture of a song, LD always just seems to have a wandering sound that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s kind of frustrating to listen to, like all the pieces are there but something just doesn’t click.

  12. Remember Vivian Girls? LOL!

  13. Oh my god, stop comparing Lower Dens to Beach House. Tonally, there is a lot of distance between these bands. If you’ve listened to Twin Hand Movement, you know the comparison is lazy, even if the new album is a bit more ambient and dreamy.

    • Yah, I always make lazy comparisons when I’m nearly asleep….

      • You complained above about LD missing choruses, and I think this shows you fundamentally misunderstand the band. Beach House are great at writing tightly structured melodic pop songs. That isn’t what Lower Dens are trying to do at all. It’s easy to criticize a band for failing to meet goals they’re not reaching for, but, um what’s the point?

        Most of my references are to their first album, since I haven’t spent much time with the new one, but if you want to talk about surprises, THM is full of them. The songs are uniformly hard to predict, which I think is why the album didn’t catch on as much as other things (just listen to the last minute of the first song on that album, for god’ sake). And with Lower Dens, we find a new album that is a huge change-up from their earlier efforts, while Beach House are spending this term coasting on their successful formula (not to take anything away from that formula, it’s really great).

  14. Is it wrong that I saw what they look like before hearing their music and immediately hated them?

    [img]https://encrypted-tbn3.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSSpYtvdds4laqcB7_PgEWfGBUpRCI5tJHTJcL-SEAiXF9rnqCg[/image]

  15. Definitely an interesting read and concept. I’ve been looking into various ways of cognitive enhancement and had come across nootropics for the first time in 2012 when I first tried Piracetam, since then I have created a nice “nootropic stack” to help assist in various memory and thought training exercises. There is plenty of information regarding nootropics on the information and there is a downloadable PDF at http://www.smartdrugsforthought.com/piracetam-research that covers all of the Racetam nootropic chemical class.

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