Release Date: Mar 31, 2015
Record label: Ribbon Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
“Is your time running out? Family, fortune, goin’ up in flames…” Baltimore’s Lower Dens have never made music dripping with positivity. It’s no surprise then, to hear this line just thirty seconds in to “Sucker’s Shangri-La”, the opening track of the foursome’s third album Escape From Evil. What is surprising, however, is what happens over the course of the next forty-odd minutes.
Lower Dens have toyed with the raw pleasure of pop music in the past, but they’ve never embraced it like this. Three years ago, the Baltimore band’s standout single "Brains" shone as a melodic gem inside the largely experimental Nootropics; now, on the band’s third album, core songwriter Jana Hunter embraces open, ringing melodies. Like a lot of current music, Escape From Evil siphons its aesthetic from the storied pop of the '80s, but it’s not content to stop at homage.
I get the feeling that Lower Dens have been at the brunt end of thin Beach House comparisons for as long as they’ve been around, and in almost no case is it ever really called for. Sure, they both fit some pretty loose-fitting genre tags – art pop, dream pop, indie pop – but save for the uncannily similar dusky vocal approaches of Jana Hunter and Beach House’s Victoria Legrand, the similarities largely end there. Where Beach House have virtually perfected the art of woozy, narcotic slow-gaze where soft, vibrant tones melt together in a radiant blur, Lower Dens have always taken a more austere, steely approach to ethereal pop that was significantly more indebted to krautrock than shoegaze.
The storyline so far in the media coverage of Escape From Evil, the third album by Baltimore’s Lower Dens, is that it’s a brighter, more optimistic, more “pop” album for a group whose previous albums built atmosphere upon atmosphere within songs that tilted from melancholy to annihilation. That narrative understandably comes partly from singer Jana Hunter’s own descriptions of the album, and from the synth-pop vibes of the lead single “To Die in L.A.”. But this notion is worth breaking down and analyzing in more detail.The subtext of this storyline is that their previous two albums were dark, pessimistic and not as poppy.
For the first time since their 2010 debut, Lower Dens sound remarkably, almost unnervingly, chipper. The Baltimore four-piece’s lead songwriter and guitar-playing vocalist, Jana Hunter, mines her pop-loving past on this third album, casting a glacial sheen over songs about longing, depression and love. A thrilling contrast arises between Escape from Evil’s dark subject matter and its cheery use of slick 1980s pop signatures, creating a disorienting effect on songs such as crashing opener Sucker’s Shangri-La and the single To Die in LA.
After Lower Dens' brilliant, ruminative 2012 breakout Nootropics, Lower Dens mastermind Jana Hunter was tired; life on the road playing the same slow, brooding songs began to weigh on the band. Following a much-needed break, the band reconvened, with a slightly altered line-up, to record a new album that eschewed Nootropics' cerebral, complex nature. That Lower Dens released sprightly synth-pop single "To Die in L.
Nootropics, the second set from Jana Hunter and Lower Dens, was a difficult beast to get your head around. It was dark, stark, heavily textured. It was the kind of album that struck me as incredible on days (usually grey) of similar characteristics, but which struggled somewhat, when the weather brightened and life took on that more positive sheen. It was an album that required work from the listener.
On their new album Escape from Evil, it appears as if the Baltimore-based quartet Lower Dens have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. After two earlier records that explored the most toxic and decaying parts of modern humanity through stark, sharp, Teutonically precise indie rock as black, grey, and white as their accompanying album covers, Escape from Evil feels and sounds warmer and more expansive. Songs are less beholden to the tight matrices of melody created by the group's expertly calibrated rhythm section, and less oppressed by the murky atmosphere of cloudy, menacing psychedelic rock.
Pleasure is always dissolving. It is everything-soluble. Ache settles like dust, unheralded. It coats us without weighing us down yet blurs our sense of purpose. Living in a realm where so much of the work at hand is working against our better judgement, it’s a wonder we can even glimpse what is ….
With Escape from Evil, Jana Hunter set out to find a poppier sound for Lower Dens, or at least bring the band’s existing pop sensibilities closer to the surface. From a production standpoint (Hunter produced the album alongside Chris Coady, with additional contributions from Ariel Rechtshaid and John Congleton), she’s succeeded. Her vibrato rings clearer than ever with its distinct throatiness, and every instrument is discernibly crisp.
"Oh heartbreaker, did you think I was a fool?" Lower Dens' steely frontwoman Jana Hunter seeks renewal on "To Die in L.A." — and she doesn't suffer fools. The multi-chromatic pop song sees the band crossing over from krautrock to synth-pop. Elsewhere on this danceable set, Hunter asks for deliverance from wasted time ("Your Heart Still Beating") and lost illusions ("Sucker's Shangri-La").
Nootropics, the 2012 album by Baltimore-based quartet Lower Dens, was a compelling mix of Neu!-like motornik grooves, Slowdive-esque shoegaze and the gothic pop of Zola Jesus. What it lacked in catchiness, it more than made up for in terms of rhythmic nous and smouldering atmospherics. Now, perhaps emboldened by the success of their Baltimore peers Beach House and Future Islands, Lower Dens return with Escape From Evil.
Lower Dens have always possessed a thousand-yard stare, the steadying force behind their percussive, atmospheric pop. That intensity helped direct their previous album ‘Nootropics’, a glimmering piece of pop that featured heady synth and percussion. But adroit rockers at heart, on their third release the Baltimore-based group go full Lynchian. ‘Escape From Evil’ is stylishly sinister release, evoking both the iconic director’s fevered dream aesthetic and ability to display the seedy underbelly of even the most polished of exteriors.
"Suckers Shangri-La," the opening cut on the Jana Hunter-led, Baltimore-based experimental pop unit's third studio outing, wastes little time in getting down to the nuts and bolts of what Escape from Evil is aiming for. Sinewy and seductive, Hunter smooths out some of the rough edges of the band's previous guises, opting for a shimmery blast of pure Siouxsie Sioux-inspired, retro electro-pop that's as chilly as it is downright confectionary. "Ondine" more or less follows suit, though it eschews the latter's penchant for icy, late-'80s soundtrack pop in favor of a more subdued, though no less midnight-black ambience that invokes names like Anna Calvi, Beach House, and even Cat Power.
opinion byAUSTIN REED “Let go,” Jana Hunter coaxes charitably on “Ondine,” the second single from Lower Dens’ third full-length record Escape From Evil. “I will treat you better.” Though not technically the track’s first lyrics, this ball’s-in-your-court mentality guides every second of “Ondine,” beseeching personal forgiveness and acceptance en route to emotional watershed. Especially considering that “Ondine,” is the catchiest track on the album, this kind of theme and imagery is remarkably swollen.
Mixed a little differently, Lower Dens' Escape From Evil would be a document of a disciplined, tightly wound band that -occasionally unravels to great effect: the queasy layered synth solo in Your Heart Still Beating, the anxiously clattering finale to I Am The Earth. But instead, dense layers of instrumentation have been laboured over to foreground Jana Hunter's singing as the album's sonic centrepiece. On first listen, it seems like a significant change-up for a band whose first two records drew a lot of power from understatement.