Review: Dirty Projectors – “Swing Lo Magellan”

July 9, 2012 1 comment

Fans never want to hear the word “accessible” in association with the release of a new album. Usually it comes with the connotation that their favorite band has made some sort of concession to help garner more outside appeal. That’s a generally fair assessment, historically. But, in the case of singer/songwriter/compositional-mastermind David Longstreth’s eccentric indie-pop outfit, Dirty Projectors, accessibility has been something they’ve fluctuated in and out of for years now.

2006’s aptly titled New Attitude EP opened with “Fucked for Life”, a track that most closely resembles the Projectors sound of today, back in a time when it was hard to even pick out an easily digestible riff within Longstreth’s, often alienating, guitar work. I note this benchmark to point out that, since the release of that EP, there’s been a noticeable initiative to warm fans, and unknowing onlookers, to the formula of tight, female vocal harmonies, labyrinthine melody shifts, and adventurously impulsive guitar play (okay yeah, that thing with Bjork aside). Their latest offering, Swing Lo Magellan, may not be the full realization of this initiative but, where it works, it’s rather convincing.

Our first taste of Swing Lo was “Gun Has No Trigger”, which kept in tow with what the Projectors excel at: oddly descriptive lyrics, hauntingly succinct background vocals, and a climax that any San Fernando Valley film director would kill for. It stands as quite the microcosm for what the album, as a whole, has to offer. Not to mention, one hell of a debut single. But, it’s also the third track of 12 that never seem to keep pace with the fervent energy that’s provided. In some ways, that’s more of a tracklisting issue than an actual conceptual mistake, but followed by the rather meandering title track and, second single, “Dance for You”, the momentum dips toward an often uneventful second half.

Where the album holds firm is in the songwriting. Longstreth has never been one to mince words and is, what I can only describe as, a walking Thesaurus. His knack for weaving intricate, polysyllabic lyrical paths that, not only fit within the context of the music, but evoke eerily vivid imagery, is unmatched by many of his peers. He opens “About to Die” with: “If a search has been long and futile and brutal. And if you squint trying to recollect the bosom of your hoodlum love. You reach out and into the absence and gasping… The vastness grabs you like an alien embrace. Your face to its face.” And this, somehow, is rakishly sang over a fairly sanguine melody, yet all neatly comes together. Touché.

This discursive nature can occasionally hinder the immersion, though. Tracks like “Just From Chevron” and the closer “Irresponsible Tune” could benefit from more subtle palaver. On a more macro level, this seems to be a problem with trying to incorporate too many ideas into one template. That “throw everything at the wall” method largely worked on their previous record, Bitte Orca, but was refined and produced in a way that seemed to follow, at least, some cognitive linearity. Here, whether it be due to weak mixing (“Maybe That Was It”), unexplored potential (“See What She Seeing”) or, and I’d hate to believe so, the absence of former vocalist Angel Deradoorian due to hiatus, nothing really sticks beyond immediate impression. Much of Swing Lo is conceptually rich, but not completely fleshed out to the point of full presentation.

Still, a halfway fleshed out Projectors song is still quite the audacious affair compared to what you’d hear anywhere else. “The Socialites”, which I now affectionately refer to as “Two Doves pt. 2” (it’s damn close), floats on razor-thin acoustic plucks and some dramatically positioned synth accents. Amber Coffman, who rarely gets the credit she deserves as a stand out vocalist, takes a “less is more” approach here that highlights the somber eloquence that can get lost among the more colorful moments on the album. That track is followed by “Unto Cesar”, which bursts with the live feeling of celebratory horns, improvisational banter, and the Dirty Projectors most clear representation of congruent interplay. Their ability to stay on the same page musically turns, what could end up being a distracting cacophony of noise, into an orchestra of raw energy and spontaneity.

Yet, this time around, it seems like more fun to be in the live atmosphere then to actually listen to from a distance. Don’t get me wrong here, I like Swing Lo to an extent, and I’ll probably continue to revisit it. But, there is a clear effort by, whomever made such a call, to downplay some of the more anomalous characteristics that make the Dirty Projectors special in the first place. There’s something unceremonious about this album that, while may add some niche appeal, doesn’t add up to one fulfilling body of work. There’s nothing wrong with making your art more accessible, but attainability should never come at the expense of idiosyncrasy.


You can stream Swing Lo Magellan here. It’s in stores and on iTunes now.