If there was an award for “most improved player” given out to musicians, Jana Hunter would surely be among the front-runners for the prize. As part of the same “freak folk” movement that spawned CocoRosie and Vetiver, in 2005 the Texan singer was the first signing to Devendra Banhart’s Gnomonsong label, but never became as prominent a fixture on the musical landscape as her most successful contemporary Joanna Newsom. In fact, despite a string of solid releases, to say that Hunter’s impact on the scene was minimal would be overly generous, which might explain why she chose to re-position herself as front-woman of Baltimore-based experimental rockers Lower Dens. Following a promising debut (2010’s Twin Hand Movement), sophomore album Nootropics – named after the process of using technology to extend human capabilities, a theme explored in a few of the record’s lyrics – sees Hunter progressing from mere vocalist to the band’s main focal point; here like never before, Hunter simply commands attention, her vocals captivating but never showy, murmuring sensual incantations as though she were casting a spell over the listener. Combining gauzey atmospherics (“Propagation“, “Nova Anthem”) and post-punk gloom (“Lamb”) with a rhythmic sensibility rooted in electronic and industrial music (“Candy“, “Lion In Winter Pt. 2”), the group’s arrangements suit Hunter’s witchy vocals perfectly, with lead guitarist William Adams and new recruit Carter Tanton (keyboards/ guitar) weaving intricate spiderwebs of sound around layers of concrete noise that recall fellow sideways-thinking darkness-dwellers like Liars and even – at times – Radiohead. But it’s the rhythm section that comes closest to stealing the spotlight away from their singer; on the fantastic opening tryptich of “Alphabet Song”, “Brains” and “Stem“, bassist Geoff Graham and new drummer Nate Nelson lock into a series of minimal but mesmerising grooves that flutter and pulse like something straight out of the Can/ Neu! school of Krautrock, driving the tracks relentlessly forward whilst simultaneously instilling a sense of uneasy stasis. With Hunter’s nursery-rhyme melodies drifting like a cool breeze, these otherworldly pop gems make for the best start to an album you’ll hear all year, and although the momentum inevitably drops along with the tempo later on, the standard remains impressively high throughout. Nootropics exceeds expectations, and raises the bar for the band’s contemporaries; this is turning out to be one hell of a reinvention.
Nootropics is out April 30 on Ribbon Music