There’s a guy in the basement of Bowery Ballroom who’s wearing a black turtleneck. I get that the temperature on this July night has dropped to a crisp 82, but it seems an odd choice of season to dress like you’re a character on that Saturday Night Live skit “Sprockets.” Two girls run over to him to shake his hand, and I am surprised I didn’t immediately recognize him as a member of the band; Lower Dens have a look you can’t soon forget.
The band kicked off its first headlining tour at the end of June, and tonight is the only New York date. Jana Hunter is tucked into a shadowy corner at stage left, holding her guitar behind a Korg synthesizer. She’s closest to drummer Nate Nelson and across from guitarist Will Adams, who’s standing across the way at far stage right. And sandwiched between Adams and Nelson is bassist Geoff Graham, also known as Mr. Turtleneck. Keyboardist Carter Tanton stepped down from the band in June, but there is never a moment in the show where I have a strong yearning for or note the absence of his keyboard. The four members make enough dreamy, droning noise on their own.
Lower Dens open with “I Get Nervous” from 2010′s Twin-Hand Movement. The electric guitars whine like fingers running around the edge of a dampened glass, and Hunter’s rich and cloudy alto brings a tunefulness to the murky air. She adds the melody again on “Brains,” from this year’s Nootropics, and thanks to her voice and Nelson’s dusty, driving rhythms, there is dancing in the audience. But these moments are anomalies. More often than not, the band settles into a mushy swirl that swallows up the vocals, as if to say, “Ignore the words. Enjoy the atmosphere.”
And sometimes I do. The high-pitched droplets of synthesizer on “Alphabet Song” give the room a little jolt, and Hunter’s voice soars on “Lamb.” I have no idea what she is saying, but I catch the soaring climax. I even like the all-instrumental track “Stem,” which shares the “Brains” rhythm and uses slightly reverberating guitar notes to carry the song’s singable quality in the absence of actual singing. But there’s a sameness to these songs live, a haze that comes with each one. The fog is rolling in, and it’s making me tired. I don’t feel this way about the albums. I revel in the band’s sound clouds, and I drink up every gently lapping hum. It’s perfect music for my bedroom and my headphones. But this room is too big, and the little intricacies are getting lost.
The set closes with “In The End Is The Beginning,” which also ends Nootropics. Hunter warns that the song is 12 minutes long, and she’s not kidding: The opus begins at 12:10 a.m. and ends at 12:22 a.m. As the band leaves the stage, half of the crowd follows suit, disappearing through the doors that open onto Delancey Street. Lower Dens come back to play “Tea Lights,” and the viewers that remain whoop their approval. These are the fans that knew what they were in for, and they push up against the stage, shrinking the performance space to a more reasonable size. Now this feels like the bedroom show I wanted.