All words: Kara C — All photos: Michelle Yass
Like most abstract art, the music of Lower Dens doesn’t suck you in at first glance, or listen. For the intrepid, the intense soundscapes, driven by simple pulsing percussion and the beautiful alto vocals of frontwoman Jana Hunter, force you to think hard to understand where the music is trying to go or what you are supposed to see, hear, and feel. For the less intrepid, their style and music runs the risk of being too cerebral and intangible.
Lower Dens’ music is far easier to understand and enjoy live. The one dimensional nature of an album that can bury a band’s full potential–masking emotion and musical creativity–does this band a disservice.
On stage Friday night at the Rock and Roll Hotel, it’s clear the Baltimore quintet doesn’t prioritize looks, showmanship, or audience interaction. For most bands, more often than not, this attitude comes off as pretentious, inaccessible. For Lower Dens, this persona suggests a genuine and dependable nature, reducing the band’s music as the focus art and passion. They rely on a gimmickless trust that breeds in the audience immense appreciation for what they are doing, without their explicit request, suggestion, or hint of self-promotion.
Their eccentricity means that their shows are not a passive experience. But it also means that the audience delights in unexpected discovery, finding that the most understated texture or riff becomes suddenly alluring. Of course, all of this wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t talented and well-practiced, at times seamlessly switching instruments, on point and in sync.
Any audience interaction that happened at Friday’s show was rare, but each engagement was a boost that made Jana Hunter and co. seem just human enough to relate to. A handful of times, Hunter briefly joked with a fan, delighting the audience with a rare smile and laughing in short awkward stops. Besides a few “thank you’s” here and there, that was the extent of it.
In the same awkward, understated manner, Hunter is immediately understood to be driving force behind the band and the music. Despite remaining barely two steps in front of other band members for most of the show, wearing an oversized t-shirt, dorky glasses, and baggy jeans, sporting her characteristically short, straight hair cut, and barely moving her lips as she overwhelms the room, she’s almost constantly the focus of the show.
And she should be. For all the incredible sounds this band is braiding together to produce their sonic journeys, Hunter’s voice is immense. While wailing on guitar or playing the keyboard, she alternates between rolling, low sounds to sharp, stunning cries, both driving and complimenting the backdrop of mesmerizing, building sound.
Besides Jana Hunter fans loyal to her earlier projects, and despite a fair amount of critical acclaim for their 2010 release Twin-Hand Movement, the recently released single “Brains” was, for many, the track that introduced Lower Dens. It’s also what made Nootroopics, released May 1, 2012, so highly anticipated. In style, the difference between the two albums is marginal, but not unnoticeable. In general, the band has matured, doing a better job in Nootropics highlighting their strongest points, most prominently, Hunter’s voice; and overall, the songs are more sharply beat driven. They played an equal mix of tracks from both projects, and the songs were evenly received.
Brooklyn-based Violens was an appropriate, though not particularly good, opener. A trio hailing from Brooklyn, formed from members of the collective Lansing-Dreiden, Lower Dens and Violens are briefly touring together before Lower Dens heads to Europe this month. Their music embodies some of the same qualities of Lower Dens – the emphasis on vocals, the slow builds – and they are perhaps more immediately accessible. But on stage Violens struggles with their identity, bouncing stylistically between synth-based 80’s pop rock, psychedelic, and guitar-driven, loud punk rock sounds.
The show had some magical, head turning moments, but similar to their studio releases, especially their 2010 release Amoral, they seemed unable to determine and convey any distinguishing feature – a hook or unequivocal element that gives the audience reason to pay attention. And it was difficult to pull out an overall feel to their music, as they disconcertingly ranged between emotional, uplifting, depressed, and energetic, even within just one song.
They also seem to fancy themselves as masters of sweeping vocal harmonies. However, I don’t think it was Rock and Roll Hotel’s sound quality that made their attempts at harmonizing a total mess, often detracting from their show rather than enhancing it.
Even so, they seem to unabashedly embrace this disparate style, so maybe they are just not particularly good live. The quality of this show was certainly in contrast to the clean production their studio work is known for.
They were at their best when they overwhelmed the audience with loud, snappy guitar sounds. Their slow-building, synth-based crescendos were most often boring, but when they hit the top, they found a natural, very enjoyable, intense stride, where synth and guitar finally complimented one another, and the vocals became confident, crisp, and compelling.