With Escape from Evil, Jana Hunter set out to find a poppier sound for Lower Dens, or at least bring the band’s existing pop sensibilities closer to the surface. From a production standpoint (Hunter produced the album alongside Chris Coady, with additional contributions from Ariel Rechtshaid and John Congleton), she’s succeeded. Her vibrato rings clearer than ever with its distinct throatiness, and every instrument is discernibly crisp. It embraces the band’s minimalist aesthetic without ever sounding lo-fi.
Where the synths of Lower Dens’ past work tended to dissolve into a cloudy wash, everything here has an individual flourish. Even the hypnotic drone that drives “Sucker’s Shangri-La” stands by itself, a hook that, when coiled with the live hiss of the drums, results in a song that’s simultaneously robotic and organic. “Ondine”, on the other hand, turns down the keys in favor of a cavernous guitar line from Hunter that would fit in on the Lost Boys soundtrack. But while Escape from Evil has a more pristine quality than what came before it, the songs after that opening stretch aren’t any more or less accessible than anything from Twin-Hand Movement or Nootropics. Those who love or hate the band will continue to do so for the same reasons: Hunter’s inimitable voice, the minimalist arrangements, and a dreaminess that pours through headphones like an LA fog (though the band’s home is Baltimore).
It’s worth mentioning the City of Angels. Hunter seems fascinated by the place. That’s always been clear in the night-drive sonics of Lower Dens, if not so much their lyrics, which remain the band’s weakest point. Lead single “To Die in L.A.” has a neo-noir momentum and an equally glossy if freaky video to go with it, and yet I don’t get much out of the words in terms of narrative, character, or theme. That’s not to say anyone needs to know exactly what’s going on in the song — Hunter’s always dealt in mystery — but it would be nice to experience some kind of connection to its namesake location beyond just having synthesizers reminiscent of the Drive soundtrack, the go-to reference for any LA-sounding band (or critic who’s writing about them). Not only could a phrase like “I wish I could count on you to be mine” take place in any city; it could be in any song from any other group.
The lyrical vagueness stems from Hunter biting off more than she, or really anyone, can chew. With Escape from Evil, she’s said that she aimed to tackle “love, death, recklessness, violence, fear, gender ambiguity, and guilt.” The only one of those topics that stands out without reading the track-by-track explanation, however, is love. Nearly every song relates to romance — romantic hope, romantic yearning, romantic discontent. That’s a nice shift for Lower Dens, but one that lacks specificity in execution. “It’s impossible love … I want to be with you, love”, goes “Quo Vadis”. “You sang to me until the dawn,” we hear later on “Non Grata”. And so on. You don’t walk away from your stereo with any concrete ideas, feelings, or even questions about love, not to mention the other themes Hunter cites.
What you do get is an album steeped more in mood than specifics. The coke-mirror production and lack of lyrical detail cause the songs to melt together in a soup of ambient club music — ambient in the lucid dream sense more than the Brian Eno sense — and that’s not altogether a bad thing. Escape from Evil is the kind of stuff that locks you into a haze without ever totally separating you from the outside world, and sometimes you need that kind of mental insulation. It makes for productive contemplation and deliberate movement, both of which are essential if you’re a human being. This is good library music, good record-browsing music, good train music, good bus music, good walking music. Or, if you live in LA, good driving music. As long as it’s at night.
Essential Tracks: “Sucker’s Shangri-La”, “Ondine”