Sherman Oaks, California is not the most enchanting place. For those unfamiliar (which is probably most of you), it is a neighborhood in Los Angeles that in many ways is on the edge between worlds. The 101, one of the notorious freeway mammoths that causes you daily stress with its traffic-laden bullshit, intersects the Burb, demarcating the line between those more well off and those who live in Van Nuys. Then there are the Sherman Oaks hills, where those who want a more decadent and luxurious lifestyle preside, overlooking the plebeians. Of course, in a lot of ways, this is a defining characteristic of LA: the ultra-rich living on a hill looking down at the “not so rich”.
It was in this suburb however, where I first heard Lower Dens‘ bleak and mesmerizing single “Brains.” “Brains” is a song defined by its unrelenting drum line that permeates the entire song, initially making you feel uncomfortably anxious, but thankfully develops into an oddly soothing mixture of paranoia and euphoria. Meanwhile, lead singer Jana Hunter’s vocals are almost incomprehensible, allowing you to only pick up muffled and indistinct words during your first listen. It was in the mechanistic monotony of Sherman Oaks that I immediately connected to the themes portrayed in “Brains”. The song is the perfect distillation of modern Los Angeles – the traffic, the disconnectedness of everyone around you, the gentrification, the capitalistic pursuit of a better life. The first lyrics sung reflect on the daily cycle we use to mask these problems, Hunter ruminating over the pressure of staying awake at the start of the day in the first two lines, “Starting the day/Staying awake”. What Hunter and Lower Dens definitively nail is one’s epiphanous realization of this disillusionment, particularly with the line “Brains without Names”, a visualization of the ensuing dehumanization of society. Like watching the cars stuck the endless flow of traffic from a freeway overpass, “Brains” numbs you to a pulp just before it pats you on the back telling you it’s going to be ok. And for Lower Dens, the song is just another example of the grim worlds they create.
Started after years of touring solo, the band was created by Baltimore-based Jana Hunter in an effort to reinvigorate her interest in performing. In a reddit AMA, she compared playing with the band to being in a “family”, remarking that they push and challenge her with the standards they set. Evidently, “Lower Dens” since the start of their career have been creating dynamic singles like “Brains”, each marking a different notch in their evolution as a band.
I Get Nervous
“I Get Nervous” was one of the standout songs on Lower Dens’s first album Twin-Hand Movement (2010). Sexual in nature with phallic symbols in songs like “A Dog’s Dick” and “Two Cocks Waving Wildly at Each Other Across a Vast Open Space, a Dark Icy Tundra” (great title), Movement was strangely romantic in its minimalist sound and lighter themes. In particular, “I Get Nervous” is the perfect love song for those unrequited loves that end in nervous declarations full of stuttering and failure. Yet the idealistic fantasizing about someone is captured to a tee, with its dreamlike atmosphere and heavy reverb. Although a music video wasn’t shot for the song, NPR featured it on their Tiny Desk Concert, a quirky video series where upcoming bands play in a claustrophobic office space. The awkward, tight set is exemplary of the humble beginnings of the Lower Dens, with Hunter displaying a quiet melancholy demeanor in her musings about love, lust, and sexuality while her hair covers her eyes like a true-to-life awkward teenager.
The aforementioned “Brains”, was initially released in a three song EP, but was later featured on the band’s second album Nootropics (2012). On it, Lower Dens became confident enough to expand their themes. Turning more nihilistic, Nootropics traverses the subconscious and ventures into darker places, exploring depression and capitalist dystopia. Without a doubt, “Brains” was the song that put the band on the map, making people scream to their friends, “LISTEN TO THIS SONG!” And by all means, if you haven’t heard the song yet, LISTEN TO IT. Be sure to follow it up with the track “Stem” which “Brains” precedes, carrying over the exact drum line.
The music video for Brains is downright haunting. It features Hunter staring at the watcher for five minutes, flickering in and out behind television interference that thumps along with the incessant percussion. Book-ended by a normal feed of her shot from a Fisheye lens the visual mirrors the song, which ends just how it starts with the lone heartbeat of the drums.
To Die in L.A
Escape from Evil (2015), like the title, was a departure from the gloomy Nootropics. The band focuses more on their synth side, emphasizing an 80s aesthetic. The lead single “To Die in L.A” follows this theme, referencing the 1985 William Friedkin film “To Live and Die in L.A” — the epitome of 80s camp featuring cheesy over the top acting, synthy fast cut montages, and Willem Dafoe sociopathic killing rampages (which may not be exclusively 80s, but I’ll list it nonetheless). The song itself is markedly simplistic in structure, straying from the complexity of their prior work. That being said, this simplicity was a conscious decision by Hunter, who remarked that she wished to achieve what other artists have done doing “so much, with so little”. Hunter achieved this goal and more, making the song a straightforward goldmine of synthesizer and bass.
The music video for “To Die in L.A” is different from “Brains” in that it features a full cast and ups the production value significantly. The video, which takes place in Los Angeles, is a clear fable about Hollywood hopes and dreams, with blonde actress Actually Huizenga playing the self-obsessed archetypal starlet. In one scene she accepts a fake Oscar on the balcony of her trashy Hollywood apartment, the camera slowly panning out to reveal how small she is compared to the rest of the city. Problems soon mount up, with Huizenga at one point yanking a loose molar out of her mouth. Meanwhile, a menacing Hunter stalks her from afar throughout, outfitted with a buzz cut, dark eyeliner, and pantsuit. As a whole, the video is about coping with failure in a city obsessed with success, with Hunter’s antagonistic presence perhaps symbolizing the voice of reason in a sea of narcissism. Huizenga thus escapes from her inflated ego in the end, standing alongside Hunter as a glamorous portrait of herself goes up in flames.
Now past the romantics of “Twin-Hand Movement”, the vestiges of “Nootropics”, and the synth-pop of “Escape from Evil”, Lower Dens has released the new single “Real Thing” (2016). Made as a collaboration with longtime friend Arthur Bates, “Real Thing” incorporates the ideas of their previous album, but again has similar themes to “Twin-Hand Movement”. Hunter sings in “Real Thing” about a woman with cognitive dissonance, feeling content with her long time marriage but at the same time loving promiscuity. In a press release Hunter stated she took the idea from an advice column she read, noting that she was enthralled by these “…kinds of simultaneously internal and yet universal struggles”.
Whether or not “Real Thing” will make it onto their next album is still unclear, but the psychedelic music video was released alongside the single, this time having Hunter sit in the middle of a dark room obscured behind a vibrant red haze. Within it, she sports a red vest and white earrings that sparkle vehemently as footage of people dancing in clubs is interwoven. Relating well to the melancholic duality touched on in the song, Hunter spends much of the video staring at a doppelganger of herself pondering what it means to love.
So with no album announced as of yet, that appears to be it for now (save for a sinister cover of Hall and Oates “Maneater” (2016), which you should also check out). The future though looks promising for the band, and honestly, I can’t wait for their next dreary paradise.
Article by Brian Grossman