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Dirty Projectors swings to a different spirit in new album

'Swing Lo Magellan' finds the experimental rock group, which heads to the Wiltern on Saturday, exploring emotional territory.

July 25, 2012|By Mikael Wood, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The band Dirty Projectors is performing at the Wiltern.
The band Dirty Projectors is performing at the Wiltern. (Shawn Brackbill )

David Longstreth is pretty sure he knows why people have been surprised by the infectious, often beautiful new record from his experimental rock outfit, Dirty Projectors.

"Maybe it's because I once made a concept album about Don Henley," he says, referring to 2005's "The Getty Address." "Or because I made one where I reimagined a Black Flag album from memory." That would be 2007's "Rise Above," which features the singer-guitarist's very loose interpretation of "Damaged" by the Hermosa Beach hard-core band.

Both discs established Dirty Projectors, in business since Longstreth's undergraduate days at Yale in the early 2000s, as deeply committed purveyors of abstruse art music. They are small-batch artisans unconcerned with the universal exhortations of Top 40 radio, yet engaging enough to attract the likes ofJay-Z, Björk and the L.A. Phil.

For "Swing Lo Magellan," released July 10, the Brooklyn-based group took a different tack, concentrating on "feelings and melodies and words" instead of the "surfaces and textures" that have come to define indie rock of late thanks to the work of acts like Animal Collective and Neon Indian. Spin called the album "a maximalist thinking minimal," while Pitchfork described it as "the band's least ornate batch of songs to date." Both reviews were raves.

"This record is about elemental stuff, in a certain sense," Longstreth said in a phone interview earlier this month, the day after Dirty Projectors played one of its biggest headlining shows, at Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The band's North American tour hits L.A.'s Wiltern on Saturday night. "On the other hand," he added with a laugh, "I'm doing this right at a time when people are more responsive to textures than ever before."

For all its newfound accessibility, "Swing Lo Magellan" still reflects a spirit of willful iconoclasm; it can feel as much like an interrogation of pop forms as an embodiment of them. In "Just from Chevron," Longstreth keeps punctuating a delicate folk melody with unexpected grunts, while "Unto Caesar" contains a bit of studio chatter in which Amber Coffman (one of the band's three female vocalists) appears to be making fun of the frontman's high-flown lyrics: "Uh, that doesn't make any sense, what you just said," she points out cheerfully.

"There's a lot of conflict in the band's music," says Los Angeles Philharmonic senior programming manager Johanna Rees. In 2010 Rees booked Dirty Projectors — whose shifting lineup is currently rounded out by singers Olga Bell and Haley Dekle, bassist Nat Baldwin and drummer Mike Johnson — to perform "The Getty Address" at Disney Hall on a bill that also featured orchestral pieces by Ligeti and Wagner. "It pulls from so many things, from Beyoncé to Ravel, that you think it's going to crash. But it never does."

"I like the idea of trying to go places emotionally that other pop music doesn't," Longstreth says. As an example he cites the new album's "Gun Has No Trigger," an unsettling avant-doo-wop number in which the women's voices shift suddenly from smoothly elongated harmonies to an aggressive hard-"A" attack. "It's this moment when beauty is curdling into fear," Longstreth explains. "The Beach Boys, you know, they sing all those soft ahs, but you can look to Dirty Projectors for the terrifying hard 'A.'"

Female vocals play an important role throughout "Swing Lo Magellan," as they did on the band's previous album, "Bitte Orca." (Angel Deradoorian, a member of Dirty Projectors for that record, sits out "Swing Lo Magellan.") Released in 2009, "Bitte Orca" spawned the underground semi-hit "Stillness Is the Move," which won over famous fans including David Byrne and Björk, both of whom have collaborated with the band. The adventurous R&B singer Solange Knowles — also known as Beyoncé's younger sister — even posted her own version of the song on the Internet.

"Amber's and Haley's voices are such powerful instruments, and they really understand how to work with them," Knowles says. "Their arrangements and the way they're able to build the instrumentation of each track — it's mind-blowing."

Part of what those vocal arrangements do in new songs like "About to Die" and "Impregnable Question" is provide a splash of soul, which along with Longstreth's fleet-fingered guitar work might serve as Dirty Projectors' sonic signature. Coffman says she learned to sing by listening to R&B and names Minnie Riperton as one of her favorite vocalists; Longstreth mentions Ray Charles and Lil Wayne. And now that world has begun repaying the band's interest: In September Dirty Projectors are scheduled to play Jay-Z's Made in America festival in Philadelphia alongside Odd Future and D'Angelo.

Still, as befits his contrarian nature, Longstreth seems unwilling to align himself too closely with any one sound or scene. Asked what he admires most about the luminaries who've recently become pals, he answers, "Their evolution — how it's not about going from one thing to a refinement of that thing. It's not linear."

Dirty Projectors' current mode — busy but hook-conscious, off-kilter yet mindful of groove — is "where my head is at musically right now," he says. "But it changes really quickly."

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