Tonight Baltimore’s Lower Dens are in Glasgow, following on neatly from last night’s gig at the ABC, where fellow Baltimore dream-pop act Beach House played.
It’s funny to see them in such close proximity; while Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter share similar, androgynous voices and craft echoed, soaring melodies, Legrand takes the role of the nostalgic, starry-eyed romantic, Hunter the dry, sober pessimist.
First act tonight is Glasgow/Moniaive’s luciensghost, a bombastic, theatrical, frenzied five-piece centred around Mike and Olwen Staples.
It’s a set of songs where ideas are raised and immediately thrown away, with collapsed beginnings of piano ballads, music hall motifs, erratic time changes, extended gaps in songs.
It’s been said that The Fall took all styles, mangled them and put them out as rock ’n’ roll, and there’s a similar approach to genre taken tonight.
There’s also a similar pairing in Mike and Olwen’s contrast of (his) bombast and (her) delicacy to the combination of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Brix Smith, but also of Pixies’ Frank Black and Kim Deal.
“If there were two of you, which one would win? The consummate star? The palace of sin?” barks Mike Staples, and it’s a similar battle between the two singers, the one erratic, the other measured, that takes place on stage.
Fear of Men’s set is marked by a distinction between their older material, from first album Loom, and new material that arrives fresh out the studio for their next release, scheduled for early next year.
While Jessica Weiss’ lyrics on Loom hinted at darkness and weakness, these contrast with the jangle-pop and easy melodies of that record; the newer material – characterised by Daniel Falvey’s use of an e-bow and backwards pedal on the guitar – is sparser, weirder, sadder.
The opening trio of songs, ‘Alta’, ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Green Sea’, all taken from Loom, sets a confident but familiar tone, from the always striking first lines of ‘Alta’, “baby, sleep with me, baby you’re my only friend,” to the anxious “I’m not alone in this, I’m not alone in this,” chorus of ‘Waterfall’.
The new songs immediately unsettle this atmosphere, and though Weiss’ voice and melodies still ground them to their previous work, there’s an uneasy progression through the set that is frustrating to only fit into a half hour, and should be fascinating to watch develop through the year.
Like Fear of Men, Lower Dens’ new material has taken an abrupt turn from their previous album, the krautrock-y, experimental Nootropics.
Their set, however, is firmly focused on this year’s Escape from Evil, a record firmly set in the synthpop of the 80s, but that uses this retro outlook to rein in the psychedelia of their previous LPs, and convey their message directly.
Tonight Lower Dens may miss a member in guitarist Walker Teret – today bound to Baltimore – but the band’s sound is rich, full and clear for this set of songs.
Jana Hunter’s voice, consistently excellent, sails on top of the mix.
The band works their way through the album, moving subverted pop tunes like ‘Ondine’ and ‘To Die in LA’ further into the set until they sound like classics.
Opener ‘Sucker’s Shangri-La’ is a groovy mini-masterpiece, a track that immediately sets out the band’s diversion from their lo-fi roots, together with a cheeky ‘wave goodbye’ to end the song, but as the set goes on, Lower Dens have had room to warm the audience to more melancholic, more experimental tracks; ‘I Am the Earth’, ‘Company’, and ‘Société Anonyme’.
Jana Hunter talked recently about how, before the release of Escape from Evil, they didn’t wanted to write “good times” songs rather than ones that are “about being miserable while being miserable,” and while there’s still plenty of weighty topics on the album, the band seem to be having fun in this synthpop reconfiguration.
The most Nootropics-like track, ‘Company’, begins, with its ominous, reverberating bass opening, before Hunter giggles, and stops the band.
“We could all go off the stage, but we know that’s not real,” Hunter teases the audience before they go for the encore, “or is it better if we just stop playing right now?”
There’s the inevitable pleas for them not to, and it’s wholly welcome when they stay, a compelling, immersive performance from a band wholly different to what they were a few years ago.
Words: Tony Boardman
Photos: Paul Storr