Folk music has become the elephant in the room. There are several artists currently making music that can be best classified as folk (semi-lo-fidelity recordings dominated by guitars and vocals) that elicits a bizarre, questioning ignorance from the unprepared public. This theory can be easily tested: wait until about ten minutes before your significant other or roommate is due to arrive home from their day and put a recent release from the Microphones, Animal Collective, or Dirty Projectors into the stereo. These ten minutes will allow you some time to get involved in the recording before the experiment begins. Now that you’re prepared, your subject has arrived. Note their response: Do they take the bait and ask, “Hey, what the hell is this?” Do they cock their head to one side, squint their eyes at the stereo and then continue to open the mail? Do they look threateningly at both you and the stereo before storming into the kitchen for a drink? Any of these confused responses is completely within reason. Don’t take it personally, continue with your listening. If prompted to name the artist, do so. Later in the evening, check to see if your subject has retained any interest in the experiment. Some will feel compelled to explore the music further in hopes of acquiring taste. Others will ignore the experience completely. And honestly, that’s the problem with many of these releases, including Slaves’ Graves & Ballads—it’s difficult to connect with the material outside of the initial recognition of its strangeness. You can be drawn in, but only so far before you’re are left feeling somehow out of place.
But that’s probably exactly where Dave Longstreth, the mastermind behind Dirty Projectors, wants you to be. Having raised critical eyebrows earlier this year with The Glad Fact, he’s back with an album culled from two separate 2002 recording sessions. The first session combines Longstreth’s dramatic warble with the efforts of an eight-piece orchestra conducted by Longstreth himself. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I am unprepared to cite the various classical compositions and composers referenced throughout the course of the recordings, but I can tell you that the orchestration runs the gamut between springtime trills that recall Alpine lovers in fields of wildflowers and bolts of sad horn and cello that invoke the morning before a hanging. “(Throw on) The Hazard Lights” is a microcosm of the material in general. The off-kilter mix of bright orchestration, quiet guitar, and vocals continually shape-shifts from bizarreness to beauty, before devolving into a screeching whine of static and violins. Even after repeated listening, these songs leave you grasping for straws. There is a seed of interest and intrigue nestled within an intellectual and technical obscurity that is, at best, difficult, and, at worst, repellant.
The second half of the album is made up of quieter recordings featuring Longstreth and his guitar. His lyrics have moved from cryptic meanderings on suburbia in the album’s first half: “We are swaddled in soft bath towels / How we’ll smother the next born son with pillows” to more personal declarations of longing and yearning. “Because Your Light is Turning Green” is the highlight of the second half. The classic tale of missed opportunities and averted eyes is aided by some welcome embellishment from electric guitar and plucked strings. In general the second half of the album is a welcome respite and companion to the highs and lows of the orchestrated first half. Still though, Longstreth doesn’t make it easy on us, he sings with the drama of classical crooner rather than the shy simplicity of a true folkie. This fact combined with his pension for nebulous song structure will continue to keep the unsuspecting at bay.