Jana Hunter’s grainy work as a solo singer-songwriter didn’t amply prepare anyone for Twin-Hand Movement, the 2010 debut by her band Lower Dens. Lush yet sinewy, the album ditched her admittedly distant warmth as a folkie chord-strummer in favor of an eerie, compelling mystique. Nootropics is Twin-Hands’ follow-up, and it runs on even thinner fumes. Rattling and robotic, it’s about as inorganic as organic music gets; that said, it shows off even more of Hunter’s arresting range and malleability—as inhuman as those may be.
From the first, frigid beats of opener “Alphabet Song,” it’s obvious that Lower Dens have morphed quite a bit since Nootropics. Like a wispier Blonde Redhead, the band sashays through the skeleton of the song, unspooling silvery synth lines and giving Hunter acres of space to soar. Diffidently, she passes. As the elegant, haunted hollowness of “Brains” seeps seamlessly into its equally ethereal sequel, “Stem,” her breathy voice barely brushes against the music. By the time the fog-shrouded, two-part “Lion In Winter” billows away, the disc’s translucent tissue is stretched close to invisibility—a sound so gaunt that it makes post-punk sound downright baroque.
That malnourishment is also its greatest strength. After “Nova Anthem” metes out austere doses of Radiohead-like melancholy, the disc closes with “In The End Is The Beginning,” a 12-minute drone-cloud in which Hunter coos her whispery operatics guardedly, detachedly, as if through a gasmask. Around her, guitars and keys hover; beneath her, drums mark time with metronomic loneliness. As a breathtaking study in grayscale minimalism, Nootropics is exquisite. But it dissipates the instant it touches air.