There’s something to be said for any band that can maintain an air of cool aloofness without abandoning their vulnerability. It’s a balancing act, and a shift too far in either direction runs the risk of coming off cold or, perhaps worse, melodramatic. With their third album, Escape From Evil, Baltimore four-piece Lower Dens have continued to navigate that tension with expert subtlety.
Lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Jana Hunter’s voice has always had an authoritative quality that I would hesitate to describe as warm, but her occasionally droning contralto nonetheless retains a bit of uncertainty that softens its edge. On a desperate love song like “Ondine,” the straightforward, pleading lyrics (“I will treat you better”) and almost imperceptible quaver suggest that her apparent emotional distance might be nothing more than a mask. This person isn’t a robot, she’s just afraid of getting hurt like the rest of us.
Threads of love, fear, and guilt run throughout Escape From Evil, and even seem to have played a role in its musical structure. There’s an underlying air of anxious reservation to the album, but from time to time it gathers the courage to break from its thematic comfort zone with more pop-forward tracks like “Non Grata” and the glimmering “To Die In L.A.” The result is a record that manages to be conceptually and acoustically consistent without ever getting boring, marking yet another successful walk along the artistic tightrope.
While this latest effort is something of a departure for Lower Dens (their 2012 LP Nootropics went pretty heavy on the sci-fi), it’s clear that the band hasn’t lost sight of what it is that makes them appealing. Whether they’re musing on transhumanism or beseeching a lover on their way out the door, Hunter and the gang aren’t afraid to explore the insecurities of the cynical, postmodern heart. Hearing a voice finally start to slip when you thought it was as jaded as your own goes a long way towards inciting self-reflection, and maybe it’s exactly what some of us need to hear.