It’s tough to tell Malin Dahlström’s age. She’s either a mature-looking 20-something or a youthful 40-year-old. It’s not that interesting of a mystery, but it’s one that the Swedish frontwoman isn’t keen on helping us solve. Regardless of whatever decade she came out of, Dahlström can’t hide the fact that the music she makes with bandmate Gustaf Karlöf as Niki And The Dove is rooted in the flashy electro-pop of the 1980s. It’s the kind of fun and bouncy but edgy stuff that Annie Potts’s character Iona would have played at her record store in Pretty In Pink.
With her teased-out blond hair and multi-tiered black dress, Dahlström looked a bit like Cindy Lauper at Saturday’s sold-out show at Bowery Ballroom, while the slick-haired, equally blond Karlöf played the movie villain to her heroine as he presided over his synthesizers. It was just the two of them on stage, pulling songs from their wickedly catchy debut album, Instinct (Sub Pop). Niki And The Dove’s music is a well-balanced mixture of light and dark: Karlöf drenches everything in deep, layered, crisp electronics that set both the dark mood and the driving tempo, and Dahlström’s voice, carrying the melody, bursts out of it like a sunbeam.
In a pristine pop vocal, Dahlström belted out “Mother Protect” and “Somebody” early on in the set, as Karlöf shook the floor with bass-heavy rhythms. The venue was in full-on dance party mode until Dahlström and Karlöf went in on some tangential instrumental interludes and killed their own atmosphere. These directionless wanderings happened a few times in the set, and each time, they immediately sapped the energy that the band had spent a couple of songs building. It’s common for DJs to use these as transitional pieces to ease from one song to the the next, rather than stopping and starting between tracks. But for Niki And The Dove, it just revealed a weakness at improvisation. Best to stick to the script.
And when they did, everything fell into place. Dahlström threw on a 6-inch flower headdress and glow-stick fingers for the dreamy “Last Night,” and Karlöf beat up a drum pad on the cavernous “The Gentle Roar.” The set was a little bottom-heavy, with the band saving crowd-favorite, and best song of the night, “DJ, Ease My Mind” and the Kate Bush-styled “The Drummer” until the end and “The Fox” and “Tomorrow” for the encore. Minor adjustments, like spacing out the hits and getting rid of those instrumental experiments, would do a lot to strengthen the band’s show. Once Niki And The Dove work out those distractions, it’ll be easier to focus on how captivating of a character Dahlström is as she leads you through a maze of witchy art-pop.