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Dirty Projectors
Dirty Projectors

Music

Disc of the Week: Dirty Projectors mix high and low, love and spirituality Add to ...

  • Title Swing Lo Magellan
  • Artist Dirty Projectors
  • Label Domino
  • Genre Pop
  • Rating 3.5/4
  • Year 2012

Imagine a museum where items of so-called high and low culture were displayed equally and together. Imagine George Balanchine walking down Broadway, seeing the flashing lights and incorporating them into a flexing hand-gesture in his ballet Apollo. The latter actually happened. The former never really could, because even if you tried it, the ethos and values of the museum would do something to the low-culture side to make it less like itself.

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David Longstreth studied music at Yale, like Charles Ives and Alvin Lucier. You can tell from his vocal harmonies that he spent time toiling over counterpoint exercises. His bumpy rhythms and strenuous melodies are the sounds of a musically literate person pushing against the stock shapes of popular song. And yet Longstreth is a pop musician who loves gospel music, the Eagles and the Andrews Sisters, and respects pop’s imperative to use the simplest terms to express things that may not be simple at all.

His latest songs with Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors are a little plainer than those of 2009’s Bitte Orca, but they don’t sound like anyone else’s because nobody else stirs together high and low in quite the way Longstreth does. The twinned female voices (Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle) singing wordlessly in Gun Has No Trigger could be taken from religious music, yet the tune, the subject (risk-taking) and the title wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond theme. The simple device of switching the voices from a covered “ooo” sound to a flat-open “aaa” at each choral climax instrumentalizes the voices in a way that nobody with a vocoder has ever done. Even the limitations of Longstreth’s wiry voice, as he drives it places where the song needs it to go, convey the idea that he, at least, is willing to take risks.

About To Die establishes a waltz rhythm, then lets bass and drums wrestle against it as Longstreth unwinds another tuneful yet strenuous melody (he’s a bit like Elvis Costello that way). This song also sets out the album’s bifurcated quest most directly, in lines such as: “Where would I ever be without you? / How could I hope to seize the tablet of values and redact it?”

Conflating love and spiritual things is at least as old as The Song of Songs, and it fuels numbers such as Dance For You, a sunny invitation to one person that is also a declaration of hunger “for something I can believe.” See What She Seeing begins like Longstreth’s answer to Lover Man (O Where Can You Be?): a search for the right woman over a bed of keyboards, bass bumps and bergamot. Yet the song’s punchline is that even though he can’t find the woman, he “can see what she seeing” in him – the search has changed his consciousness.

Offspring Are Blank takes a quasi-Biblical look at peoples and generation, with a Hebraic-sounding melody. Unto Caesar slides a smooth tune over a rumpled-bed rhythm, the bass constantly off the beat until the chorus yanks it true. Maybe That Was It takes Longstreth’s metrical shell-games to the limit, never letting the tune settle into a regular beat. The Socialites (co-written with Coffman) is a relatively straightforward song about the tyranny of appearances, and Irresponsible Tune is an ode to music, without which “life is pointless, harsh and long.” Like Bertrand Russell’s “useless knowledge,” it sustains us somehow, through records like this one.

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