Music deconstructionists Dirty Projectors are back with a new set of songs aimed more towards a pop audience…ish.
Domino Records, 2012
7.1 / 10.0
Dirty Projectors and bandleader Dave Longstreth hardly need an introduction to fans of independent music. Longstreth, a former Yale student who left college to become one of the most prolific and unique indie singer/songwriters of the early 2000s, has been nearly everywhere since the Projectors’ 2002 four-track debut record, The Graceful Fallen Mango. Since then, Longstreth and Co. have done just about everything; from an album of Black Flag covers, to a one off collaboration with David Byrne for 2009′s Dark Was the Night, to most recently releasing a collaborative EP with Björk.
All along the way, the group has cultivated their very singular form of pop deconstruction, with taking the beautiful and ugly apart before crashing them together in interesting ways. Dirty Projectors’ last full length, 2009′s Bitte Orca, was perhaps the single best application of the Projector-style to date (an argument I would wholly support). One of the best things about Longstreth is that you can honestly see this guy doing anything if he tried hard enough. We have all known that after achieving that perfect sound with Bitte Orca, this wasn’t a group that would stay put. So the question is, where will the Dirty Projectors move next? With Swing Lo Magellan, we finally have an answer. In true Projectors’ fashion, I feel simultaneously underwhelmed and pleasantly surprised by the result.
Much like the similarly interesting group Shearwater did earlier this year, Swing Lo Magellan represents a softening of the Dirty Projectors’ sound. Whereas there is some evidence of the dirtier Projectors here (like on the strange metal breakdown in the album’s opener “Offspring Are Blank”), the central focus of this record is on a brighter, borderline pop aesthetic. Songs like “Gun Has No Trigger”, “Impregnable Question”, and particularly the title track have a sort of clean percussive repetition that feels at home on records from Belle & Sebastian or Sterolab.
I can’t help but think that some of this material was either leftover from or influenced by last year’s Björk collaboration Mount Wittenberg Orca, as some of the vocal tracks sound as if they could have been written for her to sing (“The Socialites” being a perfect example). It is important to note however, that this influence works much better on Swing Lo Magellan than it did on Mount Wittenberg, presumably because Longstreth was more able to take his time putting the pieces together here. Even when he seems willing to play around with some incongruities, like on “Just From Chevron”, the sound has a much cleaner and happier feeling. Dare I say there is even a little of the Vampire Weekend effect seeping into this material. Altogether, that makes for a more accessible setlist from the group and is perfectly pleasant.
Somehow, I still feel like the group have missed an opportunity with Swing Lo Magellan. Only after it went missing on the last two Dirty Projectors’ records do I realize what makes this group truly special is Longstreth’s ability to take entirely opposing sounds, throw them together, and somehow emerge with something truly beautiful. In nearly anyone else’s hands, this is the kind of thing that comes across as pretentious and self-indulgent. With Longstreth; however, his true gift is churning accessible music out of the completely inaccessible. The Dirty Projectors have made a career out of literally re-creating pop music in their own image. With the increased focus on melody on Swing Lo Magellan, Longstreth had to sacrifice the most precious aspect of the group’s music. So, while songs like the album’s title track are undeniably endearing and should probably garner the band a few new fans, I can’t help but also think they are less memorable than what the Dirty Projectors have done in the past.
I would never say that Swing Lo Magellan is a poor record, but I also can’t see it as anything back a slight step back for this otherwise fearless musician. I hope that I’ll find myself to be dead wrong in six months time. Every fan should check the record out and develop their own opinion (and I’m sure the argument on this record will be one for the ages). In terms of success in achieving their goal, I believe the Projectors fully intended for this to be a softer, more melodic album. On that level, they were absolutely successful. But, for the time being, I think I’ll go back and give Bitte Orca another spin.
“Offspring Are Blank”
“Gun Has No Trigger”
“Just From Chevron”
Purchase Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan.