Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

Dave Longstreth, frontman of renowned indie experimentalists Dirty Projectors, is an undeniably fascinating musician. Over the years the experimentation that flows through him has manifested in many bizarre and largely rewarding ways, within his Dirty Projectors project. A concept album about Don Henley (2005's 'The Getty Address'), followed by an attempted re-construction of Black Flag songs purely from memory (2007's 'Rise Above') and then in 2009 their real breakthrough album 'Bitte Orca', an album influenced by African rhythms and r'n'b beats to an extent, and also a gateway towards expansion for the band with Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian (now departed) & Haley Dekle taking arguably more pleasing vocal duties along side the more difficult to work with yelps of Longstreth. 

With 'Bitte Orca' being so largely praised and heralded for its willingness to push boundaries, yet still remain wholly accessible, a new Dirty Projectors record would have to deliver a lot to keep the new fans they garnered in 2009 happy, and to satisfy the cult-like following of devotees that have been with them since the start. And luckily with 'Swing Lo Magellan', that is achieved. If anything, this album perhaps panders slightly more towards the new crop of fans and to an extent the 'mainstream', with an underlying emphasis throughout the album being placed on melody and often more simple, catchy rhythms. But the lack of thorough intrepid off-the-wall songs that were commonplace on 'Bitte Orca', in place for more instant quick-fix tracks (nearly all tracks fall under 4 minutes run-time) is comforting and highly enjoyable.

Opener 'Offspring Are Blank' is the most uncompromising track on the album, starting off softly with ritualistic chants, Longstreth's wildly quivering vocals building into a guitar squealing chorus very pleasingly. It's borderline thrilling and lulls the listener slightly to believe that 'Swing Lo Magellan' might be a more abrasive and pulse-quickening album then it actually is.

It wouldn't be totally insane to say that the first 3 songs on 'Swing Lo Magellan' are amongst the best openings to an album of the last decade or so. 'About To Die' is an almost perfect indie pop song, it's got a glorious, springy, off-kilter beat behind it that shifts up and down in tempo majestically. It's got one of the catchiest choruses you'll hear all year, helpfully backed by Coffman and Dekle's enchanting tones. And the lyrics are as poignant and self-aware as anything Longstreth has written before as he tackles the subject of death with dexterity and finesse: "You reach out into the absence and gasping, the vastness grabs you like an alien embrace, your face to it's face, no end and neither beginning you're spinning, your breathless orb but in a dark and hateful star", after which he then regresses about the regret of not living felt upon one's deathbed. When listened to deeply it really packs an emotional punch, and is amongst 'Stillness Is The Move' for the title of the band's best ever song.

Well, that is if you're discounting the near-flawless third track and single 'Gun Has No Trigger' with it's rapid fire yet understated drum beat and the ever-building vocal under-current provided by Coffman and Dekle. These elements combine with yet more lyrical gold from Longstreth, again centred around the themes of regret and death, to create another of 2012's finest tracks; "
If you had looked, you'd be no one's coward, distance, justice, power. You'd glimpse the password, you wouldn't need the book, you'd own both slave and master, if you just had looked" being just one glowing excerpt.

But once you've been sufficiently blown away and emotionally warped by those tracks, the album takes the pace down a notch. Everything calms down a bit, the album's title track 'Swing Lo Magellan' sounding like Bob Dylan digressing round a campfire, and 'Just From Chevron' featuring playground handclaps, being generally far more restrained instrumentally. And 'Dance For You' is a simple love song featuring mildly grating vocals from Longstreth (at least for people not entirely familiar with his voice). There are more moments like 'Dance For You' in the latter half of the record that do fall irksomely flat, 'Impregnable Question' sounds like a late-Beatles re-hash and 'See What She Seeing' is a bit too innocuous in it's discordance to really resonate memorably, although both still demonstrate just how many ideas this band have circulating round their minds, just not quite as well as other moments from the record.

Some more of the album's stellar moments come from the prominently Amber Coffman voiced tracks, like the beautiful paean for admiration 'The Socialites' and the thrillingly inventive 'Unto Caeser' (probably the closest track to anything on Bitte Orca).  The Coffman dominated tracks also provide a cathartic respite for those who need a break from Longstreth's strained crooning, creating a more engaging listen and also adding that bit more accessibility. That's just what this album is really, engaging and simplistic on the surface with complex under-currents presenting themselves in the lyrics, drum patterns and vocal delivery.

It might be a stretch to call this Dirty Projectors' best album, but it comes very close to a flawless piece of work at it's best, only occassionally swinging lo.


Toby McCarron 

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