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. It’s an album that makes overtures towards accessibility: vocalist Jana Hunter has spoken of an intention “to simplify the songs and make them more honest and direct and vocal-based”.
Lower Dens’ new-found directness works best on Escape From Evil’s standout, Ondine. The music is pared down: there are menacing synths, a slinky guitar part and an excellent vocal performance from Hunter (who continues to sound like Beach House’s Victoria Legrand crossed with Siouxsie Sioux). The chorus delivers forcefully one simple, heartfelt plea: “I will treat you better.”
Ondine is followed by To Die In LA, whose hyperactive keyboard refrain (which recalls, of all things, Take On Me by A-Ha) is likely to come as a shock to those approaching Escape From Evil straight off the back of Nootropics. This enjoyable brace of tracks suggests that this album could be Lower Dens’ equivalent of Beach House’s Teen Dream or Future Islands’ Singles – an album which shakes off the band’s ornery tendencies and readies them for crossover success.
Unfortunately, Escape From Evil is a patchy, unsatisfactory album. Nootropics could get away with its lack of hooks because there was more than enough going on musically to keep the listener occupied. On Escape From Evil, however, Lower Dens’ freshly-decluttered arrangements expose the band’s lack of songwriting prowess.
The first verse of Sucker’s Shangri-La promises fireworks but instead the listener gets a disappointing chorus akin to a malfunctioning catherine wheel. Quo Vadis and Electric Current succeed in building a sexy, nocturnal atmosphere but, without compelling melodies, they’re simply well-produced bits of background music. Worse still, the album’s closing four tracks pass by without making any impact: at the end of them, it’s as if the listener has been subjected to one of those memory-wiping devices out of Men In Black.
Lower Dens’ krautrock tendencies resurface on the pulsing Company and, best of all, during the first 30 seconds of Your Heart Still Beating, where the beat gradually quickens as if a chemical stimulant had been added to the track. It’s a thrilling moment and a timely reminder of this band’s potential. For the time being, though, Escape From Evil feels like a case of one step forward, two steps back.