If you were never interested in the freak-folk movement led by Devendra Banhart, you may never even have heard of Jana Hunter, a sort of “goddaughter” of hers. Jana made a splash on the indie underground a few years ago with “Blank Unstaring Heirs Of Doom” (2005) and “There’s No Home” (2007), two harsh albums with hearts of diamond, dark and a bit artier than those of her mentor, which allowed her to tour along with other acolytes of the genre like Deer Tick, Phosphorescent and the unbearable CocoRosie. Despite the perceptible buzz, Hunter’s name was not heard very loudly until 2010, the year that her band Lower Dens came out with “Twin-Hand Movement” and she started to free herself from the role of singer-songwriter to explore unorthodox folk filtered through a different prism, trawling for structures, tones, and atmospheres rather than verses. That album took the group on a world tour and allowed Jana to imbue herself with all of the comfort, and all of the argument, generated by teamwork.
“Nootropics” started to percolate in Jana’s head during those tiring tours. Sitting in the van, watching in the rear-view mirror as weird-folk fever slowly disappeared from sight, she tried to translate the landscape that she saw through the window into musical language. Starting from a keyboard that she was barely familiar with (her innocence in handling it is easily noticed in songs like “Lion In Winter Pt. 2”, indebted to the candidness of Young Marble Giants), she ended up shaping the bare bones of the majority of the cuts that would make up this second LP. Using those sketches, the group developed ideas and execution, obtaining as a result a small catalogue of harsh avant-folk music finished off with a touch of krautrock adornment, an album that is deeper and more tuneful than its predecessor, determined to take greater dramatic risks. One notices a curious paradox: the smoothness of the group, an organic quality deriving from the use of analogue synthesizers, infinite pedals and eternal rehearsals, contrasts with the degree of introspection reached by its leader and singing voice. Let’s say that with “Nootropics”, Lower Dens moves ahead, while Jana Hunter’s figure bounces around in a thousand directions.
The songs display a chromatic richness that is especially interesting. The colour range in “Nootropics” is strange, present but transparent, one might even say deceptive. Lower Dens’ colours have not always been more than black and white, although they have always had an infinite range of shades of grey in the middle. Their producer, Drew Brown, a disciple of Nigel Godrich, helped to add nuances to these tones, as did the projections that accompanied them during the recording sessions: film masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s “M” (the visual inspiration for “Lamb”), Alex Cox’s “Repo Man” (reflected in “Candy”), “Lion In Winter” by Anthony Harvey, whose shadow glides over both parts of the song by the same name; and others, like “Crystal Voyager” (documentary about surf to the music of Pink Floyd), the legendary rock program “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, the documentary on the figure of Ray Johnson “How To Draw A Bunny” or various episodes of the famed “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. As far as music goes, Jana recognises that they have been influenced by Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Bowie’s productions for Iggy Pop. It’s all logical without ever being entirely obvious.
If we look at the structure of the album, we’ll see that all of these aesthetic foundations, which in the end are its strong points, seem to lie at the ends of the album. The thing is that this architecture, which is all too evident in the three first songs and the four final songs, falters at the album’s midpoint. This is not because of a drop in quality, but because the central songs, “Propagation”, “Lamb” and “Candy” seem to be disconnected from the rest of a tracklist that is always trying to say more as a whole than with each of the parts separately. They make up for this small flaw with a powerful conceptual scaffolding that impregnates the whole album, making the minimalist aspirations of the songs a quagmire that is hard to get out of once you have entered it. “Nootropics” deals with such issues as: society versus humanism, the construction of our world around language, and the fascination with challenges like artificial intelligence (“Brains”), many starting from texts like an old Dadaist poem called “Suicide” (on “Alphabet”, a song that could be one of the latest things from Blonde Redhead). And the recipe works. Now whether the side effects caused are more those of a barbiturate than a nootropic—that is something that listeners will have to decide for themselves.