Dirty Projectors hasn’t changed too much in the three years since 2009 breakthrough Bitte Orca, but the band’s audience certainly has. In short, it has multiplied. Three years ago, the psych-pop outfit was playing for grad students and Brooklyn faithfuls, steadily amassing fans with an opening slot for TV on the Radio. Last Monday, by contrast, the band returned home to a packed house of hot-breathed devotees, music journalists (Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad was reportedly present), and even a handful of baby boomer converts. Critical acclaim has borne mass appeal, and it all feels so fast.
Bitte Orca deserves much of the credit for this arrival—the meticulously orchestrated song cycle catapulted the group to indie stardom—but the album played low profile during the band’s hotly anticipated and relatively brief set at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Instead, frontman Dave Longstreth focused primarily on Swing Lo Magellan, performing a whopping 11 of the album’s 12 tracks to mixed results on the eve of its release. The material relaxed the group’s dizzying prog fantasies in favor of a more concise, even breezy art-pop, but lacked the weird, tightly rehearsed highs that made Orca so exciting onstage.
Opening the set, Magellan’s title track signified the shift. After shuffling onstage and forcing a quick grin, Longstreth picked up his guitar and began the song’s jazzy two-chord strum. Drummer Mike Johnson quickly picked up the tempo. Absent were the polyrhythmic lurches of, say, “Temecula Sunrise”—instead, just a hushed 4/4 groove and a dad-friendly vocal melody. Equally passive was “Dance for You”, which found Longstreth exploring half-baked chord patterns and lyrical platitudes (“There is an answer / I haven’t found it / But I will keep dancing ‘till I do”) over a sparse backing of handclaps and a light drum shuffle. The band’s rhythm section (Johnson, bassist Nat Baldwin) offered a more forceful thrust on the excellent “Gun has No Trigger”, with its hip hop backbeat and funky bass riffing, as well as “About to Die,” which merges the album’s most infectious vocal harmonies with its most off-putting lyrics.
Swing Lo Magellan’s most notable virtue may well be its looseness. Shorter track lengths, inviting lyrics, friendly rhythms, and even off-the-cuff studio chatter all help render it a thoroughly unjarring affair. Onstage, however, some of the material felt unsettled—even under-rehearsed. Longstreth visibly cued his bandmates during songs and chattered nervously during breaks, hyperaware of the stage cameras live-streaming the show on YouTube. The sweet “Impregnable Question” was marred by half-hearted guitar noodling; “See What She Seeing” faltered under its electronic drum layers as drummer Johnson searched for a groove. “Maybe That Was It” made for an interesting excursion into noisy psychedelia, but was nearly sabotaged by a false start when Longstreth forgot to detune his guitar.
The band seemed most at ease performing well-tread highlights from Bitte Orca. “This is an older number,” Amber Coffman announced about twenty minutes into the set. Longstreth launched into an effortlessly tight “Cannibal Resource” to heavy cheers, then stepped aside so his backing singers could take over the vocal acrobatics on the stunning “Beautiful Mother” (from 2010’s Mount Wittenberg Orca). They were easily two of the tightest—and most exhilarating—performances of the set. (They are not exactly “older numbers” if you’ve been following Dirty Projectors since 2005, but the band only cemented its full-band lineup around Bitte Orca and rarely performs material from earlier records.) The lengthy, eerie “Useful Chamber” was an obvious highlight, Longstreth leaping in time to the feedback squalls (“Bitte Orca, Orca Bitte!”), and high-energy renditions of “Stillness is the Move” and “No Intention” shone during the encore.
These songs highlight Projectors’ strength as a live act: they are playful, hummable, uncompromisingly eccentric, but also unmistakably tight in their musicianship. The band’s new songs contains many of the same qualities—in shorter, punchier doses—but sounded shaky live. This was only the fourth show of the tour, Longstreth pointed out. They’ll find their groove. And we’ll keep dancing until they do.
Swing Lo Magellan
Offspring Are Blank
See What She Seeing
Gun Has No Trigger
About to Die
Dance For You
Maybe That Was It
Just From Chevron
Stillness is the Move