Lower Dens, No Joy, Alan Resnick
Saturday night at the Troubadour, Lower Dens showed they aren't easily classified. Fronted by singer Jana Hunter, the Baltimore band first introduced their inimitable strain of hazy, experimental indie rock on the 2010 full-length Twin Hand Movement. Adored by critics and fans for their originality, Lower Dens followed with their second last month, Nootropics, which sees them incorporating drum machines for the first time and leaning closer towards experimental drone rather than the dream pop.
Prior to the band's performance, guitarist Will Adams was asked by a fan what genre he'd call the act. He struggled. That incomparable quality is part of the reason they've found such a dedicated fanbase through the Internet over the last several years. That and Hunter's haunting vocals, which are like an instrument of their own.
Saturday night was Lower Dens' first headlining show in Los Angeles, but the band laid their groundwork here in 2010, opening for Bear in Heaven at the Troubadour. On that same day, they performed at Origami Vinyl with current tourmates No Joy, with both band's performances causing waves of enthusiasm among the largely unfamiliar crowd. Their opposing styles complemented each other incredibly well, and as a result, No Joy was plucked from their homebase in Montreal to open for Lower Dens on their current tour.
No Joy's style hinges mostly upon a brash, punk-inspired breed of indie rock. Constantly compared to Sonic Youth in the beginning, the band has evolved away from most of their influences, and their show on Saturday felt uniquely inspired. Vocals take a backseat to the thunderous and outrageously distorted guitar riffs channeled by No Joy's Laura Lloyd and Jasmine White-Glutz.
The one thing both bands certainly have in common is their ability to let a song grow beyond its original bounds in a live setting. That's essentially the basis of No Joy's live show, as nearly every song built up a wall of distortion that started to teeter as it was manipulated with effects. “Heedless” and “Hawaii” from the band's debut sounded much bolder and more intricate than their recorded versions. “Maggie Says I Love You” and the new song “Junior” served as the one-two punch that highlighted their set, and as the band prepared to leave the stage, they seemed caught off guard by the audience's request for an encore. Admittedly, this is one of the first times I've ever seen an opener play an encore, but if there's a market for grungy, lo-fi guitar rock it's definitely in Southern California.
Whereas No Joy's performance hit the audience from the beginning and never let up, Lower Dens' set seemed specially curated to come in waves. The band hit the stage around 10:15, using the instrumental “Lion in Winter” to mold their sound to the venue's acoustics before launching in to “Lion in Winter Pt. 2,” one of the catchier numbers from their new album. “Candy” kept the set on a relatively uptempo swing before the band pulled back the reins with a dreamy interpretation of “I Get Nervous.” Throughout the song, effects and echoes swirled nebulously around Hunter's voice, a piercing baritone that easily cut through the clatter.
Cheers erupted when the rumbling two-note bass line to “Brains” began afterward. “Brains” is the band's most popular song to date, and as with most of Lower Dens' material, it takes on a certain life of its own in a live setting. Bassist Geoff Graham served as an impeccable back-up vocalist on the song, and as the rest of the show unfolded his paramount importance to the band became even more apparent. During part of the show, he seemed entranced by the melodies, zoning out completely with eyes-closed during “Lamb” and “Propagation.” As Hunter belted out the lyric “Life is such a lonely bitch” during “Lamb,” Graham balanced the spectacle with a more tender vocal approach.
As straightforward as most of the performance was, it was an unexpected treat to hear the band close with a 15-minute version of “In the End Is the Beginning,” also the closer on their new album. After Hunter finished her vocal part a few minutes in to the song, she left the stage, Graham following just a few minutes later. At this point, only two members were left on stage, guitarist Will Adams plucking away at a ghostly melody, while drummer Abram Sanders maintained the pulse. Hunter and Graham returned for the end, thanking the crowd before taking a five-minute break and returning for a short encore.
Clearly, Lower Dens is only getting better. Though they certainly weren't lacking in their performance two years ago, the 2012 version is a much more exciting one, as the band's catalog has expanded and so has their sound. But after releasing one of the best indie albums of the year in Nootropics, it was somewhat surprising to see the Troubadour not even close to sold out last night. I suppose it's always an uphill battle for fans when your sound is so difficult to compare.
Personal Bias: Laura Lloyd and Jon Wurster are my favorite indie rockers on Twitter.
The Crowd: Bros and lesbians sipping Budweiser in harmony.
Random Notebook Dump: Jana Hunter seems to be going for the dejected tennis pro look these days.