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Lower Dens - Twin-Hand Movement

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Artist: Lower Dens

Album: Twin-Hand Movement

Label: Gnomonsong

Review date: Jul. 19, 2010

Lower Dens is a new band, but feels like a second act. The music is reserved, but finds ways to be cutting, even as it holds back and spends most of its time in nocturnal sparseness. Twin-Hand Movement plays like the work of a group that has pulled bold moves already, made some good records, and is interested in investigating its internal rapport. Confined to basic instruments, each musician leaves space for the others. The holes in the music make little shifts in volume and twang unmissable, the way an invisible scar on your hand feels like a gash to your fingertips.

I’m not sure what the rest of the Dens were doing before this, but they are a second act of sorts for Jana Hunter, who’s worked as a folk weirdster in the circles around Devendra Banhart for a while, mostly solo, mostly slacker than this. So when it comes to loudness and density of sound, this is a ratcheting up. If the others initially assembled as a backing band for Hunter, it became a full-fledged collaboration quickly, re-aligning her style, making it rigid. You can find an early version of Hunter doing the song “Completely Golden” fingerpicking on an electric. For the full band take, the same chords are shaped from rumbles and fuzz, with strict drumming that removes all traces of country bobble from the demo.

There’s no law saying songwriters who’ve established a solo voice can’t retreat into a band, but it’s rare for them to drop their peculiarities in the service of the whole. Some of the song titles show traces of the let’s-try-to-be-annonying cutesies of Banhart and CoCoRosie (“Two Cocks Waving Wildly At Each Other Across a Vast Open Space, A Dark Icy Tundra”). That playing around doesn’t filter into the final songs, where the words are barely in the foreground. When words do come into focus, they’re direct and Hunter delivers them sincerely.

That lack of brattiness keeps them from being mistaken for garage punk, but they share some strengths with garage contemporaries. Pretense is in check. Poesy like “Baby I get nervous / just being in your service” has the punch of Eddie Current Suppression Ring — it’s delivered without irony, yet self-aware enough to appreciate the obviousness. Like Thee Oh Sees, fragmentary songs feel complete, tossing out the superfluous verses and bridges of songwriting rules, but still stealing some power from old tricks. The tom-and-tamborine beat of “Be My Baby” might be the most hackneyed rhythm you could stick on an album in 2010, and it’s here on “A Dog’s Dick,” just as it is on so many records of the last few years. They harmonize as if they’re going for the big buildup, but one verse in, the vocals vanish, and it becomes a long fadeout of twin guitars entwining around a stair-climbing scale. “Truss Me” could be a rough take of “As Tears Go By,” as the Stones slowly cycle through the changes while Marianne Faithful tries out different words. More often, they’re skeletal, led by the bass in a dour downbeat rock.

The Dens have a knack for not over-stirring the batter, implying bigger and longer songs, but cutting them short. They burn just long enough for the next change to plunge deep. They don’t misstep.

By Ben Donnelly

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