Lower Dens – Nootropics (Ribbon Music, 2012)
There are bands who arrive fully formed and there are those who take a little while to find their footing. Sometimes all it takes is one song. In the case of Baltimore’s Lower Dens, who are fronted by onetime folk eccentric Jana Hunter, that track was “Brains”. Released in advance of this record, the single added krautrock and electronic touches to the group’s signature guitar swirl and suggested a new dimension and a new confidence. Everything hit with more impact: the drumming was crisper, Hunter’s singing was richer and more evocative, and there was an extra layer of prettiness, but also menace. The message seemed to be, “Here’s a band you can’t ignore anymore.”
Nootropics strengthens that argument, building on the promise of “Brains” and vastly widening the band’s sonic palette. Richly detailed, dark, and ethereal, the album is a feast for sound-first listeners drawn to expressive shifts in color and tone. To suggest that it’s a creative step forward for Lower Dens is not to knock their 2010 debut, Twin-Hand Movement, which was a fine album but pretty specific in its appeal. (A moody nighttime listen, ideal for a 2 a.m. drive home by yourself or a late-night glass of whisky.) Nootropics is at once more inclusive and varied, though. And the band achieves this by pulling a clever trick: taking some of the most well-loved elements of the rock canon and making them their own.
“I listened to Radioactivity by Kraftwerk pretty much constantly while writing this record, and… we listened to a lot of Eno and Fripp and the Iggy Pop record that David Bowie produced,” Hunter said in an interview. And you can certainly hear those influences at play. Robotic synths, ambient drift, stark percussion– many of the touchstones of 1977 art rock are on display in tracks like “Lamb” and “Candy”. It doesn’t feel like by-the-numbers mixtape-ism, though, partly because Hunter’s singing is too dynamic to allow for that. Her androgynous voice can be airy and lilting or times throaty and masculine, and it lends an eerie otherness to the songs. Even when backed by a simple motorik bassline, Hunter sounds beamed-in from somewhere else.
This is one of those albums that creates its own little sound world, and a lot of its appeal has to do with qualities like texture and atmosphere. These are terms so overused in music writing that they’ve nearly lost their meaning, but here they’re important. Take for example the very tactile percussion of “Alphabet Song”. Snares and cymbals click-click-click like someone with long, fake fingernails tapping on a car window. Or go back to “Brains”, which does an excellent job of building tension and transferring energy with those outward-spinning guitars. For a while they kind of chime in place, but then right before the chorus hits, they step down an octave and there’s an exhale. The mood changes and takes you along with it.
With so much attention on the sonics it can be easy to ignore the words, and actually I’d say the lyrical content is the record’s least interesting aspect. In that same interview from above, Hunter discussed the subject matter, going into some heady stuff about Dada and transhumanism and “denying our animal selves.” I’m not sure what she meant, and I’m not sure that it matters. This isn’t an album about a specific narrative, it’s about sounds and colors and the way a synth tone or cryptic string of words hits you and makes you feel something. When the guitars are chugging and the drums are crackling and Hunter sings, “When I finally let my guard down, I was in the middle of the sea and drowning,” I don’t know what she means exactly, but it gives me goosebumps. Every time.
Marilyn Manson – Born Villain (Cooking Vinyl/Downtown, 2012)
Sound: Brian Warner began his career while going to college for a journalism degree, and formed the band The Spooky Kids. Later on the name was changed to the name of Brian‘s stage persona, Marilyn Manson, and through connections he had made with Trent Reznor of NIN had their debut album “Portrait Of An American Family” released on Reznor‘s record label and went on tour to support NIN. This sky-rocketed Marilyn Manson to national infamy due to the controversial persona that Marilyn Manson had developed. Although initially the concept for the band was something between industrial metal and hardcore punk rock, their musically gravitated towards more of an alternative metal sound. Over the years, Marilyn Manson has cultivated his stage persona in order to create and sustain a level of shock from the general public which has often over-shadowed their music.
Fast forward to 2012, and Marilyn Manson is releasing their eighth studio album, “Born Villain“. Although they have fallen out of the national spotlight they had been such a subject of in the mid and late 90’s, their music has been consistently interesting and often good. It appears that “Born Villain” will better than just interesting and will actually be a good album as well. I have to admit a distaste for the way Marilyn Manson has used shock as a marketing tool, and to enjoy his music I always have to listen to it and pretend I don’t know anything about the band itself. I suggest this, as it really helps to enjoy the music for what it is. Really, the album feels like Marilyn trying to stretch a little bit but maybe not knowing exactly how to do it. At times it is well executed and at others it feels a little awkward. Regardless, it feels like a genuine effort, and honest, so I have to give it a thumbs up. // 7
Lyrics and Singing: As always, the lyrics of Marilyn Manson‘s songs range from being genuine to being designed to shock to just being generally depressive. I know that it sounds negative when I describe it that way but that isn’t exactly how I mean it. I do have to be in the right frame of mind and mood to listen to Manson‘s lyrics, but often times I’ve learned while he may see the world through a distorted lens he isn’t afraid to talk about the way things really are, at their darkest. We need artists that are willing to do this (even if they’re possessed by their own over the top wigged out stage persona). The lyrics from Born Villain do seem to be much more personal than Brian Warner‘s past albums, which is something interesting because in the past his lyrics have been mostly about society or about the nature of fame.
From the song “The Gardener“, you have the following lyrics: “I’m not man enough to be human but I’m trying to fit in and I’m learning to fake it/ don’t ever meet their friends/ tells you too much or not enough/ or worse, exactly the wrong thing/ every nuance every detail every movement every smell/ sound phrase inflection/ the way she laughs/ these are all the things you either obsessively fetishize or make yourself grow to love/ although you are supposed to be done growing she is still growing/ it is like a garden with two flowers one just blooming/ and casting a shadow just like yours/ and then it becomes a struggle of sunlight or rain or weeds“. Most of the lyrics on “Born Villain” seem to be primarily autobiographical. Marilyn‘s vocal delivery is really the same as it ever was – not really any comment you can make on that, though there is much more spoken word delivery on “Born Villain” than his previous releases. // 7
Impression: My favorite songs on the album are “No Reflection“, “Slo-Mo-Tion“, “Breaking The Same Old Ground“, and the title track “Born Villain“. The only song I really dislike is “Pistol Whipped“. This isn’t the best album ever from Marilyn Manson, but it is the best we’ve seen in a few releases and it is much more personal lyrically than previous releases. As I listen to multiple listens I seem to feel differently about the album at each listen, but the end verdict is it is a worthwhile collection of songs. You may be able to tell from reading my review that I ran the gambit of emotions regarding this album, and I think from the interviews I’ve read this is what Marilyn Manson has intended. If so, then great job on his part.
There are 14 tracks on the album counting the hidden track, which is a cover of “You’re So Vain“. With the bonus track the album clocks in at just over 63 minutes. This is really a respectable length for an album, which is a nice change from a lot of modern bands that release albums that clock in at under 30 minutes. A word about the bonus song – the cover of “You’re So Vain” – if you don’t compare it to the original, but listen to it as an individual song it isn’t that bad, but it is probably the first cover from Marilyn Manson that I didn’t like when compared to the original version. // 7
– Brandon East (c) 2012