Pre-2010, Baltimore-based Jana Hunter was a solo artist who had released an album and an EP on Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic’s Gnomonsong label. After tiring of performing as a solo artist, she decided to switch gears and work within the format of a band, enlisting the aid of bassist Geoff Graham and other musicians (currently Nate Nelson and Walker Teret round out Lower Dens). Her purpose was to contribute more subtly to the musical communal whole instead of shining brightly in the spotlight (at least in the live setting). The band released two albums, 2010’s debut Twin-Hand Movement and the striking sophomore effort Nootropics in 2012. While the press release for the band’s latest offering, Escape From Evil, strongly suggests that Jana’s vocals are suddenly now the focal point, her voice has always been prominently featured on previous releases.
While Jana’s place in the band hasn’t really changed from album to album, the instrumentation sure has, and Escape From Evil unfortunately remains chained to a wall of mechanized, repetitive drum tempos and flightless, mid-range synth and electronic notes refrains. With the exception of swoon-worthy album-ender “Société Anonyme”, nothing on Escape From Evil compares to the highlights of previous album Nootropics. No song matches or surpasses the evocative, emotive “Lamb”, the hymnal “Nova Anthem”, or the darkly dreamy “Candy”. On Escape From Evil, the overall sonic tone is lackluster and sterile and the instrumentation is too spare and simplistic.
The saving grace is Jana’s vocal delivery and lyrics, but even those fail to engage for the length of each and every song. Jana’s emotional ache and bleak, questioning lyrics are a lot to take in over ten tracks. By the time the ninth song spins, one wonders if there is an upside to anything… Jana draws out and curls around her words in a rich, mid-range tone, sometimes delighting with a lighter, upward lilt on phrases like on “Ondine” and at other times swinging between regret and hope like on “To Die in L.A.”. Her ambivalent, androgynous range is put to good use on the interesting “Your Heart Still Beating” as she pitches upwards into a keening statement about “All my fears coming alive.” and then switches to a lowered, dusky tone, proclaiming “Never again…”. An ominous bass line and sharp, clacking drum beat, akin to a quickening heartbeat, accelerate the pace as shaken reverb synths and warped organ notes create an off-kilter atmosphere.
“Company” also catches the ear with its speedy, clipped drum tempo, dawning synths sound, warped organ notes, and build up to a stormy instrumental intensity. Jana pushes out her words, declaring “I wish I could feel anything at all…” and she is bolstered by supporting vocal lines sung in a deeper tone by other band members. “Electric Current” features limpid, The Cure-like guitar lines and Jana’s changeable vocals, but the insistent, fast-hit synths notes agitate and the song emanates a rudimentary song structure vibe. “Société Anonyme”, as mentioned before, is the outright keeper of the album. It swims in a dream-pop ambience of chiming, delicate guitar notes and brighter, sky-bound synth lines. Jana smoothly sings in a lighter tone “Entertainment / I don’t care for it.”, but this is one number that will leave listeners highly satisfied.