Lower Dens releases “Escape from Evil”
Daniel O'Boyle | Wednesday, April 8, 2015
In 2012, Lower Dens released “Nootropics.” It was a great swirling, experimental effort, but among its tracks, “Brains” really stood out as the most straightforward song on the record. It wasn’t a standard pop song by any means, with lead singer Jana Hunter’s vocals hard to decipher behind layers of psychedelic shoe-gaze effects, but it was among the best songs of the year, suggesting that Hunter and company might have the potential to write a great album of more accessible music.
That album is “Escape from Evil,” released last week on Ribbon Music. The layers of synth and guitar are toned back a little, the melodies are a more accessible and Hunter’s powerfully deep voice is more clearly at the forefront. It’s maybe still not what you would call an indie-pop record, and you mightn’t be hearing Lower Dens on Top 40 radio any time soon, but it’s a notable move toward a more approachable sound — perhaps more similar to Beach House, who had significant commercial success with their 2012 album “Bloom,” released just weeks after “Nootropics.”
Lower Dens’s more melodic sound is at its best on “Escape from Evil’s” first two singles. The first, “To Die in L.A.,” is carried by a light-hearted synth running throughout, making the song almost danceable. The chorus of “Time Will Turn the Tide” sounds like something you could sing along to, while Hunter sounds clearer than ever, no longer lost behind her band. It’s a kind of happy synth-pop tune that seems a long way from the likes of “Nootropics,” but it works and makes for a great song.
“Ondine,” the album’s second single, is a more gentle affair, but it’s another highlight of the album, with most of the instrumentation stripped back, allowing Hunter to really let her voice shine. Far from any deep experimental shoe-gaze, it’s an incredibly simple song, with incredibly simple cries of “I will treat you better” and “hold on.” While Lower Dens has made some great complicated songs in the past, with “Ondine” they’ve shown that they can make great songs with a little less experimentation.
However, “Escape from Evil” still has its more experimental moments. “Control,” located towards the end of the album, would never feature on your ordinary synth-pop album. With a swirl of voices gradually building up while the synths and guitars drone on, it’s probably the track on the album most similar to “Brains.” Also like “Brains,” it’s another great song, hitting that balance of having a simple melody but buried deeply enough to keep it interesting.
At times though, the balance isn’t always quite right. Some songs toward the middle aren’t quite enjoyable enough to be great synth-pop songs, and they aren’t quite deep enough to be great experimental songs. Instead, they sit in a kind of purgatory that every crossover album risks, which leads to a couple of songs sounding like forgettable filler.
Luckily though, there are enough good songs to stop this from being a major problem. Hunter’s voice and more down-to-earth lyrics are enough to keep the album interesting, while the simple tunes, not drowned in effects, are still listenable again and again.
The overall product is proof that Lower Dens always had a great synth-pop album in them. There’s not quite one song that will grab you and feel like an instant indie-pop classic, but there are some great tunes that will make “Escape from Evil” a great starting point for new fans of a usually out-there sort of band.