So much of music today is all flash with not a whole lot of substance to back it up. That’s not meant to reference live shows with towering stage set-ups and blinding strobe lights, though those sorts of things do factor in. No, this has much more to do with the way melodies are constructed, with upbeat energy and massive choruses. As is the case with people and life in general, sometimes the little or quieter moments carry the most meaning. Lower Dens seem to know this and embrace it. Their first album Twin-Hand Movement was a drifting, atmospheric set of music that played largely off progressive and shoegaze influences. Singer Jana Hunter, having established an offbeat solo career prior to forming this band, provided a haunting core to the group. Her voice mixed with the sparse instrumentals often landed the group somewhere between Beach House and The xx in the “recommended if you like” bin. Lower Dens’ second and newest effort Nootropics does what any good sophmore record should do and expands upon what’s already been established. Synths and a light sprinkling of electronica add depth and new wrinkles to the band’s otherwise guitar-focused sound, and they go a long way towards making the album shimmer in just the right light. The last album felt like it wasn’t entirely sure about what it wanted to be, occasionally drifting off the main route and onto side streets to explore uncharted territory. The confidence, poise and focus they’ve now attained enriches the new record in almost every way: the drums are just a little crisper, Hunter’s vocals ache and swirl just a little more, and the overall beauty just has that much more of a devastating impact. This isn’t an album that tells you how to feel with its lyrics, but instead one that carefully guides you with somber melodies that are difficult to ignore. To the rabid pop music fan, some of these nuances and subtleties can be lost or written off as boring. The album’s finale “In the End is the Beginning” hits its stride early on and then sustains itself for more than 12 minutes without quitting. The track “Lion in Winter” comes in two parts, though they effortlessly bleed into one another and play out over nearly eight minutes. Early single “Brains” plays with minimalist psychedelia for five minutes, then releases right into the more propulsive Neu-like groove of “Stem”. It’s through these pairings and slow motion sojourns that we’re supposed to allow the darkness to fully envelop us. There’s anxiety and despair in there too, but in spite of the record’s overall moodiness the beauty bleeds to the surface and makes everything easier to take. It wouldn’t calm your mind as well as it does if the opposite were true. Those qualities are a large part of Beach House’s aesthetic too, and Lower Dens sound more like them than ever on Nootropics. That’s especially true on tracks like “Propogation” and “Nova Anthem”. Where the two bands truly disconnect though is in their presentation. Victoria Legrand is a very present and up-front vocalist, which is evident from Beach House’s albums. She takes charge and lets her voice soar when the melody requires it, and the band’s music is often described as lush or full-bodied as a result. By contrast, Hunter’s presence on the new Lower Dens record is wispy and in many ways detached from the other instruments, as if she’s wary of the outside world and its ability to hurt her. That emotional blockage contributes to the album’s fragility and brings otherwise invisible moments into focus. So while it lacks a certain degree of heart, it more than makes up for that via smart, well-considered craftsmanship. With an album title that references so-called “smart drugs” designed to improve brain function, Lower Dens appear to have taken some before sitting down to make this record. Let’s hope what they learn here sticks with them for the future.