In the early half of the 2000s, everyone grew out their hair and beards and folk music came back hard. Devendra Banhart led a merry band of pranksters in cheap-looking expensive jeans, and made it cool to sing cracked songs about honeybees and jackrabbits. There were a lot of pencil drawings of birds. It was all very self-serious, but it was refreshing and exciting too. Baltimore-based Jana Hunter was a quiet, but key part of that rebirth, recording stoic and haunting personal songs as a solo artist. As much of the scene splintered into major label deals and muddled potential, Hunter beefed up her lineup for her current project, Lower Dens, putting together a more traditional backing band. “I’ve never really found that I was comfortable playing solo shows,” Hunter says. “I realized it was because I wasn’t writing music to share with people, it was an emotional outlet and I wasn’t focusing much on the craft. A friend of mine used to give me a hard time and be like, You know your songs are all open wounds, basically. It was good to do something that had more to contribute to others than just whining about my life.”
Much of the music from the freak folk scene was released on scattered, limited CD-Rs destined to be lost in the shuffle, so when Lower Dens released their debut, Twin Hand Movement, in 2010, it came across as a laser-focused iteration of Hunter’s formidable songwriting talents. It was also more cynical and darker than anything she’d done before. While her solo work had its feet firmly planted in folk, Lower Dens was harsh, dark rock music without any innocence whatsoever. Even the quiet moments felt tense. “The first record was inspired in part by the Baltimore community and individuals within it,” Hunter says. Lower Dens’ new record, Nootropics, on the other hand, goes for much headier subject matter. “Nootropics has to do with a class of drugs. There’s psychotropics and then there’s nootropics. I think, colloquially, they’re referred to as ‘smart drugs,’” Hunter says. “Humans, at this point in time, still are thinking to make themselves better, more successful animals. It seems fundamental to our culture that we want to just take a pill and make everything better. We want to make ourselves the best thing that we can be but we want to do it in the easiest way possible.” Although conceptually complex (and maybe even a little pretentious), the music hits all the sweet spots, adding layers of keyboards and skittish drum machines to heroic swaths of guitar that angle around corners right as they’re needed. Everything is held together by Hunter’s voice, which is thick and husky and would be perfect for brooding love songs if she wasn’t singing about how the world works instead. Nootropics is a daunting listen, but it’s also extremely enjoyable, and that’s because even at her most far out, she has an understanding of what makes an album feel big. There’s a part on the album closer “In the End is the Beginning” where Hunter sings, I feel different now than I did before as the music crumbles and decays around her. It’s a simple statement amidst a complex moment. People change, so does music.
Stream: Lower Dens, Propagation EP