Music review: Baltimore's Lower Dens at the Kennedy Center

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 7:01 PM

"Twin Hand Movement," the debut album from Baltimore quartet Lower Dens, showed up on a handful of year-end top 10 lists last month. It was a regular, though, on the "most overlooked" lists that praised lesser-known acts. A performance Monday evening at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage helped explain the schism, but it also offered plenty of hints that Lower Dens will achieve list ascension with its next release.

Lower Dens is not a grand-statement band that demands to be recognized; instead, it has studiously worked in its own little corner and has perfected its own brand of hypnotic psych-folk-drone-rock. It's the kind of music that slowly creeps onto your radar and is bound to remain there.

It's convenient to group Lower Dens with their Charm City brethren Beach House and Wye Oak (they'll open for the latter in March at the Black Cat) since each group features a female vocalist with a striking voice. But while Beach House favors hazy, willowy dreamscapes and Wye Oak plays sturdy, dynamic dirges, Lower Dens works somewhere in the middle. Singer-guitarist Jana Hunter's voice was the focal point of almost all of the 14 songs the band played Monday, but she never overpowered them with over-emoting. Her inviting sing-whisper on songs such as "I Get Nervous" and "Truss Me" lulled listeners into her comfort zone.

Geoff Graham's propulsive bass lines were the foundation for most of the set, combining with drummer Abe Sanders for a relaxing motorik on "Blue & Silver" and "Holy Water." It recalled British drone rockers Electrelane, one of those "overlooked" bands of a few years ago.

With the rhythm section locked into a gentle groove, Hunter and fellow guitarist Will Adams were free to lay on the texture. Healthy slabs of reverb helped single notes resonate, and Hunter's occasional tech trick of sampling her own vocals to create a loop added a bit of spookiness - and probably confused the handful of curious stragglers and bargain-hunting tourists who often make up the audiences for the daily Millennium Stage shows.

While those patrons were surely present in the Kennedy Center's high-ceilinged hallway, most of the seats were filled by 20-somethings who were clearly there to see the band. So why doesn't Millennium Stage host more of these types of shows? The schedule has always been NPR-friendly, but this is the new NPR crowd - Lower Dens even has a Bob Boilen-hosted Tiny Desk Concert to prove it.

Surely there must be two or three indie bands a month that would rather play at one of the nation's great performing arts centers for a few hundred fans instead of a dark nightclub that looks like the dark nightclubs in every other city on their tours. Consider it a new year's resolution for all involved.

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