Monday, May 4, 2015

album review: 'escape from evil' by lower dens

So there are some indie acts that just fly under the radar and nobody beyond the hardcore fanbase seems to know. I've barely gotten requests for this act, the buzz has been negligible, and even despite the fact this new record has been very well-received, nobody besides critics seems to care.

And this is something I've noticed about certain acts getting critical acclaim - it rarely means much at all for the actual act outside of very specific circumstances, and it needs to be spread wide enough to drive buzz. But even with that it might not be enough - I can think of a slew of indie acts that because they didn't get the right big performance or that huge hit single, they might have the love of critics but nobody else. Even in the age of the internet, where certain sites like Pitchfork want to define the narrative of what is popular, or where we have music critics who have accumulated enough subscribers to nearly reach half a million people, it's not often enough.

So with all of that in mind, let's talk a little about Lower Dens. Beginning with a shoestring budget in Baltimore in 2010, their debut album immediately reminded me a lot of The War On Drugs in terms of the spacious, hazy shoegaze-inspired mix and willowy vocals of Jana Hunter, but that's where the similarities ended. For one, the bass and guitar tones were far more reminiscent of post-punk, and the melodic grooves were simply phenomenally balanced against the crisp, stripped back percussion. They added more electronic elements with Nootropics in 2012, which eased back some of the haze and added sharper, more defined grooves and some synthesizers, and while I definitely think it's a damn great album, I think I liked their debut a tad more, although songs like 'Brains', 'Lamb', and especially 'Candy' were huge standouts.

And when I heard they were heading towards even more of a pop-friendly direction... well, to be honest, I was a bit mixed on it. I had no doubt in my mind that Lower Dens could write some stellar hooks if pressed for it, but I didn't want to see them shoved towards synthpop like so many other bands in their vein and lose some of their unique identity. So what did we get from Escape From Evil?

Honestly, it's a bit of a tricky album to judge, and one of the reasons I've been slow to talk about it is because it's not exactly easy to untangle. Now don't get me wrong, I definitely think it's a strong slice of work and think it's easily on par with their other records, but it's also an album that tries to do too much lyrically and struggles to feel cohesive all the way through. In other words, it's a damn good record that does feature some huge highlights, but it might work better in chunks than as a whole.

So let's start with the simplest part of this conversation: instrumentation and production. As I had expected, Lower Dens went towards synthpop with Escape From Evil, but they went towards probably the best possible era: the weirder side of the early 80s new wave scene, in the vein of Ultravox or especially A Flock of Seagulls. In other words, while there are gleaming keyboards anchoring the melody lines, the prominent bass lines and reverb-touched guitars haven't gone away, although the majority of the distortion has been cleaned up. All of this served to give the album a much chillier feel, and I have to admit I do miss some of the shoegaze distortion, but there's also a much tighter, more melodic presentation against an expansive mix here that does show a taste for pop-friendliness. The echoing waves of guitar against that groove of 'Sucker's Shangri-La', the slippery bass and great melodic interplay of 'Ordine', the echoing call-and-response of 'Quo Vadis' as the layers of guitar and bass bleed across each other, the drifting waves of wobbling synth and fluttering guitars against the muffled kickdrum on 'Your Heart Still Beating', the more bass-heavy simmer of 'Electric Current' with that great thunderclap, or the rigid bass and rubbery guitar lick on 'Non Grata', or the shining waves of synth over an incredibly solid bass line on 'Societe Anonyme'. And then there are the moments that are just flat out awesome: the ominous rollicking low riff of 'Company' that finally brings in some welcome sizzle thanks to the organ and emphasizes that unearthy feel even further; and then there's 'To Die In L.A.', which might as well be the 'Red Eyes' of this year for one of the most powerful choruses you'll hear on record, it's incredible. I do have some nitpicks - the thinner guitar and synth tones do occasionally mean that some of the melodies feel a shade off-key at points, the solos can meander a bit, and I do wish the backing synth tones had a little more shimmering presence - but as it is it lends the record an alien, distant tone that recalls much of the music of the time, even drawing back into the eerie post-punk that inspired most of it.

And one of the things that helps that feel - and makes me think most of it was intentional - were the vocals of Jana Hunter. I'll admit, her voice can be a little tough to get used to, as it seems to often straddle an odd spot between masculine and feminine, especially when reverb or effects through up even more haze. And that does hurt the overall immediacy and approach of the record - there's an odd feel of detachment I get from Hunter's delivery that might fit some of the more complicated framing of the songs - I'll get to that - but does make it harder to connect, even when her yearning is at its most pure. She does have a lot of vocal presence, don't get me wrong, but throughout this album it could have afforded to land more potent emotive moments that she does.

And this inevitably ties back to lyrics and themes, both of which Hunter described at length during interviews - which to some level always irks me a bit, because if you need to explain abstraction like this the lyrics haven't done their job to truly drive home their point - I use sites like RapGenius as a reference more than a walkthrough, anyway. The odd thing is that she probably didn't need the full explanations, as many of the songs are simple enough to decipher in theory, often focusing on whirlwind passions that she knows are destined to fail, attempting to provide comfort from her own place of isolation, or simply finding some solace in being an outsider. And I'll give her credit, the distance that she holds these emotions allow her a lot of flexibility in the framing to write complicated situations. 'To Die In L.A.', 'Quo Vadis' and 'Electric Current' are prime examples of this, head-over-heels love or hookup songs that know said situations are destined to fail or be fleeting, but it's not going to stop the fantastic moment. And I definitely appreciated her final two tracks about breaking away from a world of lies and failed connections and her obvious fear of the cool dismissal of the 'normal' around her.

But where this album frustrates me is in the songs about building those connections where Jana Hunter tries to extend some form of comfort - because while she has framed herself in order to disconnect, it makes her songs of solace feeling oddly self-involved. 'Sucker's Shangri-La' is intended as a track where she tries to speak to someone struggling with addiction - but she later tries to co-opt that person's voice to try and capture the drama from within and it just doesn't work. 'Ondine' is a similar case, consoling someone in a terrible relationship saying that as soon as there's a window, they should get together - and I dunno, these sorts of tracks tend to rub me the wrong way, especially as the instrumental tone could very easily be interpreted as seductive and it becomes a track encouraging cheating with our narrator. 'Your Heart Still Beating' is a little better, as Hunter tries to console someone who has gone through a family death, and her act of consolation rings a little hollow. Now to be fair, I get the feeling she knows all of this - hell, if we're looking for a theme of this record, it'd be the complicated dynamic that comes with emotional isolation, with the most vibrant of moments coming in the incredible fragile human connections - but nearly all of it is framed from our narrator's isolated perspective, and lyrically I feel there isn't quite enough to really capture the frustration and pain that comes with not having those moments. The most egregious example comes in 'I Am A Planet' - and yeah, I get the essential metaphor of individual separation, but there's an element of navel-gazing to the song that doesn't really feel earned, even if it is her coping mechanism of letting go of guilt, and it doesn't really feel earned.

Look, as a whole, I really do like this album - the instrumentation is memorable, distinctive without feeling like a throwback, and a natural evolution of Lower Dens' sound, even if I do wish a little more shoegaze distortion had crept in. And I'm not going to lie, the framing is excellent as well, even if the songs do feel a little underwritten at points to support the pile of themes that Hunter wants to explore with any sort of depth. But I'm not going to deny that this album really did click for me and its best moments are absolutely stellar, so it's getting a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a sucker for new wave and especially for the early 80s on the weirder, post-punk side. It's not quite a classic, and I'm still not quite sure how I'd rank Lower Dens' three albums, but in a year where synthpop has come back in force, Lower Dens definitely has one of the strongest additions.

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