Album Review: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan [Domino]
One of the most fascinating things about Dirty Projectors is how they continually evolve with each new record. It’s been almost 10 years since the band released The Glad Fact, which at the time really wasn’t much more than frontman Dave Longstreth and Yume Bitsu’s Adam Forkner playing oddball songs people had trouble describing. Things got even more fun in 2005 with The Getty Address, a concept “opera” that was about the destruction of the environment, 16th century explorer Hernan Cortes, and featured a main character named Don Henley. There was dense orchestration mixed with some more modern R&B beats that certainly gave it a unique feel and sound. When people started to earnestly pay attention to this eccentric and sometimes brilliant band was in 2007 with the release of Rise Above. The record was an attempt by Longstreth to re-interpret the classic Black Flag album Damaged track-by-track, in spite of not having listened to it in over 15 years. His focus also shifted away from epic, orchestral arrangements and more towards dense polyrhythms and visceral vocal harmonies. Band membership was somewhat streamlined too, and after working with a wide variety of people including members of Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors became a more comfortable five piece with people Longstreth actually seemed to care about. The real challenge was getting people to care too. Such wild musical ambitions often made for difficult results, and the critical love the band received didn’t exactly earn them a huge increase in fans. They are the sort of band best described as “not for everybody.” On their last album Bitte Orca however, they went a long way to help rectify that stigma by moving in a more accessible art-pop direction. Key elements such as West African-inspired guitar lines and offbeat percussion remained, but never had the band produced something that was so light, airy and altogether fun to listen to. After years of wandering through a desert of his own wildly strange vision, Longstreth had finally found the balance needed to take the band to the next level of success.
That was three years ago, and since then restlessness has once again gotten the better of Dirty Projectors. Never content to do the same thing twice, or even keep the same lineup for too long, there have been a few changes made in preparation for the release of the band’s new album Swing Lo Magellan. Keyboardist and singer Angel Deradoorian has taken a hiatus to focus on other projects, and drummer Brian McOmber left the band, with Mike Johnson taking his place. A close listen to the new single “Gun Has No Trigger” also yields some clues as to what’s in store on the new record. The arrangement is best described as minimal, with an unwavering beat and light flourishes of bass guitar being the only instruments used beyond Longstreth’s lead vocal and the harmonies of Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. The poppy, R&B-like flavor of “Stillness Is the Move” off Bitte Orca is nowhere to be found. In fact, not one song on Swing Lo Magellan even comes close to that level of funky, resonating catchiness. That’s not the point though, because this is a fresh batch of songs written with different intentions in mind. Whereas the last album was very self-conscious by carefully reappropriating certain sounds in creative ways, Longstreth has called the new material deeper and more personal, but also more playful with an emphasis on writing great individual songs rather than leaning on an overarching theme. Instead of retreating from the more pop sensible and accessible song structures, the band drives even further towards them. The way they do it varies from song to song, as do the styles somewhat, but when you’re anchored by distinctive guitar playing along with equally distinctive percussion and vocal styles, those constants do great work keeping everything pretty uniform even when they’re anything but.
Swing Lo Magellan begins with Longstreth clearing his throat. It turns out to be the first of many raw “sounds of the studio” that appear on the album. “Unto Caesar” contains the most obvious use of the technique, with Coffman and Dekle asking, “When should we bust in the harmonies?” right in the middle of a verse, and later commenting on the lyrics with, “Uhh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.” Such off the cuff moments actually lend the record quite a bit of levity and sharply reduce the impression that Longstreth is a bit anal retentive when it comes to song arrangement. Is almost everything else pieced together in an almost ironclad fashion? For the most part, but that’s another point Longstreth is trying to make: music should inspire you and relate to you rather than simply existing in a vacuum of your own complacency. Songs like “Offspring Are Blank,” “About to Die,” “Just from Chevron” and “Impregnable Question” tackle the big topics of birth, death, environmental disaster and love, because if you write about trivial things you’ll get trivial responses to your music. The whole thing is very nicely summed up at the end of the record with “Irresponsible Tune,” where Longstreth adopts a ’50s style croon and a lone acoustic guitar to make his case. “Without songs we’re lost/and life is pointless, harsh and long,” he espouses with the same sort of tender conviction that’s so effective across the rest of the album. Even if he sang it as though he didn’t believe it, that doesn’t make the words themselves any less correct.
What makes Swing Lo Magellan such a compelling listen is that you’re never able to put it into a box or describe it to someone easily. If you’ve heard a Dirty Projectors record before then you’ve probably got a reasonable grasp on what they sound like, even if words fail you. Opening track “Offspring Are Blank,” for example, is extremely organic in its initial approach, the melody created via humming voices and the rhythms sustained by handclaps. Three kids on a school playground can recreate it, no instruments needed. Until the chorus, that is, when the sky cracks open and the electric guitars and drums come to life next to Longstreth’s soaring vocal. The dynamic shift from quiet to loud and back again calls attention to the verse-chorus-verse nature of the song while also sucking you in with a dynamite hook. On a different side of the spectrum, “Just From Chevron” has no chorus or hook, and plays out as a story where Coffman and Dekle narrate the beginning and end while Longstreth belts out a meaty lead role through the middle portion. It’s a unique way to put together a song, but the lyrics about a dying oil employee’s final words are what sell and justify its existence. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Dirty Projectors get a little psychedelic, “Maybe That Was It” is a guitar-heavy dirge that’s one of the most normal things the band has ever done. There’s nothing inherently weird about it outside of some light effects applied to Longstreth’s vocals, yet such a straightforward approach almost leaves the song sounding like the odd man out. When you’ve got a record full of handclaps, alien-like harmonies and various electronic bric-a-brac, avoiding such things can give you the impression there’s something wrong.
Similar things could be said about the title track. Longstreth’s relaxed vocal is paired with a lightly strummed acoustic guitar and a very standard, unflinching snare rhythm. As he waxes poetic over those 2.5 minutes of folk, there’s something almost Dylanesque about it. That brings up a great point: Dave Longstreth and Bob Dylan have quite a lot in common. Both are very odd and mysterious creatures, about whom we know everything and nothing at the same time. The attitudes and opinions we’re supposed to glean from the songs themselves are nearly useless, because either the lyrics are too strange to make any sense out of, or the times we do understand will be contradicted in the next song or record. Interviews are awkward, and often classified as train wrecks. Yet in description, people tend to use the words “ahead of his time.” At the end of it all, the one thing we can remain sure of is that be it Longstreth with Dirty Projectors or Dylan and his band, we will always keep expecting the unexpected. It may not always work out or be the easiest to digest, but at least they’re still trying to reach that next level of greatness. That’s more than can be said about a vast majority of artists making music today.