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album review: lower dens, twin-hand movement

On Friday, July 1, 2011, I braved one of the biggest tourist traps in New York City, the South Street Seaport, for the free Dirty Beaches and Lower Dens show as part of the River to River Festival.

Yes, you read correctly – it was free. The reason New York puts on so many awesome free concerts in the summer is it’s the best way way to thank the citizens who actually endure the summer weather conditions. I always joke that in July and August, New York City should be known as New York Swampy. Anyway, I’ve already caught free Andrew Bird and Medeski Martin & Wood shows this year, and it’s just the beginning of July. I know it’s the start of winter Down Under, so I am asking you Australian readers to look back into your recent memories and remember the best parts of your summers when listening to Lower Dens.

When my friend asked me to go to the show, I must admit that I was more excited to see Dirty Beaches than I was to see Lower Dens. I am more familiar with the former because I was seeing a guy who was really into the Montreal music scene and he got me into Dirty Beaches at some point this winter. But, we got there a little late and ended up only catching the tail end of the set, specifically Dirty Beaches’ best-known single “Lord Knows Best” off the March 2011 album Badlands. I was there for the long haul, though, and when Lower Dens took the stage I was blown away.

(Side note: the way the Seaport handles its sound was amazing – the location isn’t quite ideal, as it is an outdoor venue that small, on a river, next to a highway, in New York’s Financial District. However, every nuanced guitar riff and hummed vocal was perfectly projected throughout the whole space.)

Lower Dens is the 2010 brainchild of Texas “freak folk” musician Jana Hunter. The band is based in Baltimore and shares the same disposition towards experimental music reminiscent of neighbors Animal Collective. Lower Dens’ main claim to fame was being the first band to release an album on indie-folk god Devendra Banhart’s record label Gnomonsong. 2010’s Twin-Hand Movement was met with mild success by all the typical indie mags and the band has been enjoying relative success ever since.

I’ve been listening to Twin-Hand Movement since the second I got back to Brooklyn. Not only did the band play a great show, but the gritty, 60’s shoegaze dream pop is absolutely perfect for this time of year. Opening track “Blue & Silver” immediately draws you in with its intoxicating dreamy vocals on top of searing guitar riffs and explosive drum bits. The band shows the listener its softer side with the second song, “Tea Lights”. Here, Hunter’s mellow and almost haunting vocals paired atop the simple percussion and eerie guitarwork evokes Victoria Legrande. But where Beach House keeps it kind of consistently mellow throughout, Lower Dens gets darker. Twin-Hand Motion is clearly influenced by acts as diverse as Sonic Youth to My Bloody Valentine to Beach House. “Holy Water” has the kind of instrumental intensity and soundtrack quality that recalls Sonic Youth’s Simon Werner a Disparu. Following track “I Get Nervous” builds upon the previous song’s rhythm, but adds a beautiful layer of shoegaze distortion, pop melody and “freak folk” moodiness. That unexpected cohesiveness is what makes Lower Dens’ sound so unique in the sea of music we’ve seen rise to popularity over the past year.

Truss Me” marks one of the most interesting departures from the rest of the album because the track has kind of girly 60’s pop sound that might make Best Coast jealous. The dream pop is emotionally intensified with matching instrumental scaling on “Hospice Gates” in a way I’ve only ever heard Beach House achieve so well. The final track on the album is “Two Cocks”, which acts as a perfect platform for Hunter’s unique voice. This song was probably the best known by the crowd. It has all the things I enjoy about the album, but its vocal clarity and simple instrumental arrangement miss so much of what Twin-Hand Movement has to offer.

Give the album a good listen or two. I’ll see you at the beach.

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