Music review: New albums by Lower Dens, Joy Postell, Ami Dang and Height Keech

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Jana Hunter of Lower Dens. Credit: Torso.

Lower DensThe Competition” (Ribbon Music)
A number of things have changed about the world and human existence in the four years since Lower Dens’ “Escape from Evil” came out. In hindsight, “Evil‘s” at-times anxious and excited considerations of the heart’s impulsive and earth-moving feelings sound downright quaint. “The Competition,” singer/songwriter Jana Hunter and drummer Nate Nelson’s latest, is a more poignant and confident consideration of what an “escape from evil” might mean in 2019.

I’m not just talking about the album’s sardonic lead single, the delightfully disco-pop “Young Republicans,” which playfully skewers the conservative under-40 political organization as a bunch of jokers who just want to watch the snowflake world burn. The song’s video, a knowing mix of 1970s Euro horror exploitation flicks and eat-the-not-rich satire, is so wickedly entertaining it’s not the least bit surprising that Lower Dens’ label was informed that some radio programmers felt the song “too controversial.” Of course they did—the song is smart, funny and makes you want to shake your rump with whomever happens to be near. Has nobody seen that political allegory of defying America’s 1980s new conservatism through ridiculous white people dance, “Footloose”?

That streak of playful political awareness runs throughout the album. The title feels less like an allusion to the ostensible opposition and more like capitalism’s insistence that market forces determine value. As a vocalist and lyricist, Hunter continues his ongoing evolution into one of the more fearless explorers of the deeper reaches of the mind’s ability to comprehend the world.

“I Drive” is a heartrending portrait of who does and doesn’t get to be family for people in the queer and trans community. In the bridge, Hunter asks, “I wonder why do I have to make a sacrifice?” before exploding into the chorus’ defiant question, “Why can’t we be with the ones we were made to love?” over a bass line and drum pattern as pelvis-wiggling as late ’70s British synth-pop outfit Visage’s “Anvil.”

In fact, that New Romantics era might be the best musical signpost, and political reclamation, that Lower Dens pulls off here. Standout tracks “Buster Keaton,” “Simple Life” and “Empire Sundown” sound as synth-y sexually ambiguous as those halcyon hybrids of pop, soul and lovers rock while completely subverting the carefree consumerism embraced by some of the more successful Thatcher-era acts.

“The Competition” feels like a celebration of people feeling seen, understood and safe in their bodies, loving whomever and however they want, laughing together, and getting on with getting on. And say whatever you want about stock market dips and asset bubbles, but few things have the potential to disrupt capitalism like people feeling well enough to start imagining the world in which they want to live instead of merely enduring the world they’re told they need. Lower Dens plays a pair of record release shows Aug. 31 with :3lON and Hoeteps and Sept. 1 with Ami Dang and Trillnatured at Rituals.

Height KeechRaw Routes” (Cold Rhymes Records)
MC Dan Keech, aka Height, is a rare bird in Baltimore and in general. When he started coming up waaaaay back in 2000 with his “Height” debut, he was kinda/sorta part of a cadre of artists bubbling up in suburban America who may have learned DIY through punk communities but only had ears for hip-hop’s beats. He was working in the early 2000s before the day-glo wave of Wham City transplants and art-school energy exploded a mostly white sector of Baltimore’s indie music acts into the early stages of internet fame, and toured with the likes of Beach House, Dan Deacon, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat and Future Islands. And 19 years on, a few style change-ups and a dozen recordings later, he’s still cranking out hook-filled tracks that reflect his own idiosyncratic interests. He’s an artist dedicated to the sincere integrity of his own muse.

Just as Keech turned to psych rock as a sample/loop source on 2017’s “Mind Moves the Mountain,” “Raw Routes” sounds like it’s turning to other less sampled genres, this time from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Shambolic garage rock feels like the starting place for fuzzy gems such as “Drained Out Lake” and “Desert Racers.” A jump-bluesy beat and surf-y guitar provide the steady pulse for the witty thought experiment “If Hitler Won the War, There Would Be No Rock & Roll.” The backing groove on the posse cut “Gang Way”—featuring ialive, Hemlock Ernst, Goldzilla, PT Burnem and Mister—rides the kind of wah-wahed guitar snarl and percussion breakdown found on some of the tracks off the ass-flatting “Gears and Black Exhaust” comp of black rock.

His best alchemy here is the most unexpected. Doo-wop’s swaying pace and demure melodies figure into some of the strongest songs. “I Can’t Believe There’s a Meme Shooter,” Keech’s moving appeal to humanity in the face of gun violence, rides a gentle swing that wouldn’t be out of place in a soda fountain. And “Working Woman Blues” turns a piano melody and harmonized woo-ooo-ooo line into a three-minute monument honoring all the ladies who “work alone/ downtown in the commercial zone” to make ends meet. “I saw you walk through the wind and the rain/ and I know it’s a lonely living,” Keech speak-sings in his winter coat of voice, before offering, “someday we’ll cure your damn working woman blues.” I don’t know what kind of “resistance” art people thought punk bands might’ve turned out under the current regime, but to me musical solidarity sounds a bit like this. Height Keech plays an album release show Sept. 21 at the Metro Gallery with PT Burnem, 83 Cutlass, Vans_Westly and a DJ set from Secret Weapon Dave.

Joy Postell Back and Forth” (self-released)
Postell streamlines the intelligent, experimental soul and hip-hop hybrid that she showcased on last fall’s “Diaspora” into her take on straight-up bedroom R&B with this six-song EP. By bedroom, I don’t mean between the sheets, more the conversations you have with a romantic partner in good and bad times and the conversations you have with yourself when trying to decide if all that emotional labor is worth the effort. The title track tackles that internal debate head on, and the lesson learned isn’t that love is or isn’t worth the effort, more that her song’s narrator can handle whatever her love life throws her way.

If you’ve seen her live, you know Postell’s voice is an expressive, jaw-dropping instrument and undisputed star of any album on which she appears. Just don’t sleep on her sly approach to R&B songcraft and production. “Possibilities,” which extends a meet-up invitation to a potential mate, pairs jazzy piano and bass lines to a moody trip-hop backbeat. The song switches gears about halfway through, though, becoming more of an ambient immersion in electronic textures and percussive accents, which suspend Postell’s voice in an ambiguous limbo that echoes the second guessing of her lyrics.

“Rain Down” opens with a vibrating surge of electronics before dissipating into a ghost of a rhythmic texture only incidentally marked by a bass pulse. And EP closer “Say My Name” starts with a sunny organ and guitar interplay before a wide-bodied bass ripples through the calm like a large boulder hitting a placid pond. There’s a bit of Dawn Richard’s or FKA Twigs’ marriage of R&B and underground dance music going on “Back and Forth,” but Postell’s voice is a more distinctive force than either, and she’s charting her own path toward R&B’s future. Joy Postell plays a free show on Sept. 1 at The Ottobar with Baby Kahlo, DJ Dam Kham and Station North Sadboi. Free admission with RSVP runs from 9-10 p.m.

Ami DangParted Plains” (Leaving Records)
Dang revisits the instrumental sitar and electronics excursions that she explored before turning to pop-tinted alloys of classical Indian music and globe-trotting beats on her solo albums “Hukam” and “Uni Sun.” And she’s doing it as a more confident composer and improviser, her disarming sense of rhythmic dynamics honed in such killer tracks as “Uni Sun‘s” “Nazm” and her consciousness-mining musicality showcased in the Raw Silk duo with cellist Alexa Richardson. That’s perhaps an overly wordy way to saw that “Parted Plains” is a choice melding of head-trip excursions packaged inside of pop-song sized morsels that land a disarming punch.

Take “Make Enquiry,” for instance. A bubbling rhythm is paired to a synth wash that Dang plays a spare sitar line over, establishing a hesitant mood. The sitar line picks up a bit of pace, and about two minutes in the melody gains momentum, somewhat echoing the haunting anxiety of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” theme. Dang aims somewhere way beyond mere immersive unease, though, and “Make Enquiry” ends in this flowering of syncopated synth tones and a dancing sitar melody that’s as brain-massaging as Ash Ra Tempel’s nearly 20-minute thunderbolt “Amboss,” only she pulls it off in five minutes and change.

Other krautrock sound-as-spiritual-exercise acts such as Amon Düül, Harmonia and Popol Voh keep coming to mind when listening to “Plains,” as Dang feels similarly interested in respecting music as a catalyst connecting mind to soul. She finds the near sublime a number of times here—the dizzying “Auberjinn,” the pastoral “Stockholm Syndrome”—and, by my ears, the hypnotic, time-stopping “Sohni” goes all the way into the ineffable. Ami Dang play Rituals Sept. 1, opening for Lower Dens with Trillnatured.



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