on 12 September 2012
There's always been a delightful irreverence about the Dirty Projectors, right back when it was just Dave Longstreth on his lonesome fooling around with 20th century classical music and blending incongruous production values. His unique approach to music making have helped turn DP into one of the most distinctive bands in the world and on Swing Lo Magellan they've made their first legitimate pop record. "Gun Has No Trigger" the albums lead single, features the Projectors trademark off kilter vocal harmonies, subtle instrumentation and Longstreths mangled Thom Yorke-esque falsetto. These elements are sequenced in such a way on "GHNT" though, that as a listener you feel invited to join in the reverie instead of being alienated by it. Lines like "You'd see the oceans swell, And the mountains shook, You'd see a million colors, If you really looked" are incredibly evocative in an elucidated brechtian type of way.
The sparse clicks, empty spaced singing and muted percussion of opener "Offspring Are Blank" lure you into a false sense of security before the chorus of explosive arena rock blows the cobwebs right out your complacent ears. Dirty Projectors mischevious moment of cacophanous euphoria in this song demonstrates how cleverly they can mix abrasiveness and accessability without it feeling disjointed or incongruous in any way. Long time DP fans may miss the absent Angel Deradoorian but should feel consoled with Amber coffman's superlative contributions, she turns in a beautiful vocal performance and some insightful lyricism on "The Socialites", her sweet butter wouldn't melt style of singing in this song cleverly disguises her razor sharp diatribe to judgemental elitists.
On the title track Longstreth gets his dylan on, by rambling out a modern day folk tune which their short film Hi Custodian perfectly captures the spirit of. "Dance For You" whilst being one of my personal favourites also serves to describe the irrepressable brilliance of Swing Lo Magellan by condensing everything that makes this album so great into one song. Inventive arrangements, catchy guitar riffs, handclapped rhythms and pensively playful lyrics all flow melifluously here and it's a marvel to behold. Whether this album has managed to replace Bitte Orca as the bands crowning achievement seems like an unnecessary thing to contemplate right now as i'm still having far too much fun getting to know this gem to begin making such comparisons. One thing i will say though is that after half a dozen listens swing Lo just keeps getting better and better so at the very least it's a real possibility.
In 2009 Brooklyn wonders the Dirty Projectors produced an album of such sheer invention entitled "Bitte Orca" that when they released it it should have come with a patent. The name "Talking Heads" is generally bandied around when it comes to this band but frankly what both bands really share in common is a sense of inventiveness and most importantly a desire to produce music that taxes your brain cells. The inventor in chief in the band is a real "smart alec" named David Longstreth who studied classical composition at Yale University and brings with him a desire to test, tease and on occasions torment in terms of his musical constructions. He also had within the band Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian two female singers blessed with voices that could melt polar ice caps not least in fabulous songs like "Stillness is the move" and the the ravishing beauty contained in the orchestral highs of 'Two Doves".
It appears that for Longstreth's latest offering "Swing Lo Magellan" that regular vocalist, Angel Deradoorian, is on a bit of a hiatus although Coffman remains present. Indeed she takes control on one of the major highlights on this album the bubbling and minimalist funk of the wonderful "The socialites" which for the curious should be the point of entry in this cerebral but largely accessible album. Opening track "Offspring are blank" starts with a good old humming sound from a mix of male and female voices and loops it way through a clever song structure laid out by Longstreth which is punctuated by an impertinent noisy rock guitar which rudely but effectively breaks the gentle flow of the song. Other songs like the poptastic single "Gun has no trigger" are far more straightforward affairs and in days of yore before Cowell created monstrosities dominated the airways might have actually charted. The title track does tip a nod to David Byrne but is none the worse for it while the playful "Dance for you" shows that Longstreth is taking a decidedly more accessible path than earlier albums. On that song he reflects that "there is an answer, I havent found it" and yet musically he seems to be getting closer to a form of inventive pop perfection matched by too few other bands. Irritatingly "Impregnable question" sounds to this reviewer like a Prince song but with the old grey matter receding rapidly identfying which is one it is is proving a source of high irritation (help!). Some might complain that all this amounts to a significant blunting of the dense quirkiness that was found on previous Projectors output and yet one of the best songs on this album "See what she seeing" sounds like a manic Kid A style ping pong match with a structure held together by the Longstreth's best vocal. One significant complaint is that he is so full of ideas that perhaps ultimately he rather over dominates this album and with a vocalist like Amber Coffman at hand it seems to be a case of wilful underuse of her considerable skills?
"Swing Lo Magellan" ends with a song entitled "Irresponsible tune" which ironically for Longstreth at least is largely a straightforward acoustic strum albeit one that hauntingly fades out to conclude a work which cements the reputation of the Dirty Projectors as a band who are not content to stand stil and rest on the proverbial laurels. This is an intricate and invigorating album that for those who have never heard of this band represents an ideal starting point because of its underlying pop sensibility. Dirty Projectors remain a challenging band who remain wedded to producing music that sometimes doesn't quite hit the mark but when it does they are unstoppable.