[20 August 2009]
The Dirty Projectors’ moniker is a metaphor conjuring technology and a blurring of rock aesthetics. Dave Longstreth, the band’s brainchild and only perpetual member, has consistently added members to the band since his first studio release in 2002. With the release of 2009’s Bitte Orca, the band has become a sextet of three men and three women singing and playing Longstreth’s eclectic sponge rock, which manages to soak up and spit out influences as diverse as Brian Eno, James Brown, and Fela Kuti stuffed inside prog rock, Motown, and ethereal Art Pop containers. In the process, the Dirty Projectors have developed an identity beyond that of Longstreth’s studio pet.
This show promises to be a hot one. Literally. It is July 16th in Baton Rouge in the middle of the strongest heat wave and drought in decades. Our sandy neighbor, Texas, is in danger of morphing into molten glass. We’re subtropical in Louisiana, but do not be fooled by the verdant greens. The heat is victor. It’s 10 pm, and the heat’s thrum is still potent enough to wilt the myriad swooshes of male bangs and flora along the walk path to Will Call. All are little children suffering, and the club’s location—beneath the towering I-10 overpass—only increases the sterile, unnatural, highway heat descended upon this grotto of bistros and cafes. As I wait in line, the trellised garden leaves look as if they’ve turned inside out from exhaustion. They loll at me like fat tongues as I’m wrist-banded and enter the club.
Inside, there’s no A/C, just good beer, sweat, and a few hundred people. I walk to the stage area, a small brick room in the shape of an L that will trap both music and heat for the evening. It’s easily 100 degrees preshow. My inner thermometer predicts an additional twenty degrees once the music begins. As I’m doing the math, I see Dirty Projector Amber Coffman and a techie carrying in a four-foot equipment case. She wipes her brow, murmurs something about the heat. The other Projectors, minus Longstreth, mill about unnoticed, sweaty. The crowd, in no hurry to pack themselves together, swills beer and water alternately.
The Givers, a local act come east from Lafayette, rev up the temperature immediately. The high-fretted melodies and octave popping of the bass, the stereophonic keyboard motifs, the guitar interludes—hurry-scurry yet legato, like a less intellectually-motivated Trey Anastasio—move The Givers quickly into a position to challenge the headliners’ control of the stage and audience. Yet it is all in good fun. The Givers specialize in sounds that gather together melodically and electronically bent forms of surf rock, beach rock, and other sunny forms of rock, but send them underwater, where the tunes are refracted with light and space, and where songs sometimes scrape against their rock-encrusted musical seabed. The result is akin to Of Montreal’s, The New Pornographers’, or even The Talking Heads’ front line with a rhythm section and keyboardist taking mild direction from a French New Wave producer. The Givers’ bridges and choruses are often nothing more than the catchiest of harmonized shouts conjoining female and male vocalists Tif Lamson and Taylor Guarisco.
These shouts, accompanied by a rhythm section that often drops into funk doubletime, give one a feeling of ascendance, not submergence. Try as you might to disappear into darkness or slumber, The Givers will pull you toward the surface, the music revives your limbs, their energy and humor revive your mind. They are familiar, not trite. They are nourishing, not sugary. And the Dirty Projectors are lucky to have The Givers, whose forty-five minutes of sweat, smiles, and lack of gloom sheltered the crowd from what could have been a weathered apathy. Projectors’ leader Dave Longstreth himself is thankful several times during the Projectors’ own set, stopping twice to riff some Mitch Hedberg-esque gratitude, calling the openers “a regional commodity… the Star Trek of rock ‘n’ roll,” and later, “a true nation treasure,” to much applause.
As The Givers’ set ends, everyone quickly clears out of the backroom for cooler environs. Yale dropout and Projectors’ maestro Longstreth appears with his bandmates. Longstreth seems one of the few people in the rock world who wishes to project an intellectual shadow. But he has also been accused of (sometimes heavy-handedly) disseminating his own myth, and some critics have lambasted him for putting on his put on. Yet Longstreth deserves more than a shadow of respect. The weight of two of the Dirty Projectors’ past studio collaborators, named David Byrne and Bjork, respectively, could have easily overshadowed the Projectors’ own significance, were it not that both Byrne and Bjork simply served as an addition to the band’s own sound, with each collaboration a one-time-only cocktail that tasted strongly of the Projectors’ typical concoction.
Whatever he is, Longstreth is the consummate artist. He appears onstage for set-up in a white T-shirt with a small stain on the front. Why go onstage in a clean shirt if you’re not in music for celebrity and money? True genius never gives in to its mother’s manners. Only the artist-disappeared-into-musical-self would unknowingly pull off such stage attire.
After disappearing briefly, Longstreth and bassist Angel Deradoorian reappear onstage, with Deradoorian sans bass, to duet on “Two Doves” from the Projectors’ latest release, Bitte Orca. This decidedly quiet intro—one voice, one finger-picked guitar—works well, despite Deradoorian’s mildly nervous facial expressions. Rather than an opening song that overwhelms the crowd with the monstrous blocks of density and black hole vacuum that comprise their edgier riff rock, Longstreth and Deradoorian instantly crash the fourth wall by opening with a vulnerable, endangered decibel performance. An audience member is forced to beat them or join them immediately. And with Deradoorian’s clear, pure voice building to the chorus’ simple statement, “Fall on me,” Deradoorian has no reason to be nervous. All in the audience, do, in fact, fall into place by song’s end.
The purposely-brittle finger picking of Longstreth, which adds a heightened tension to placid folk arrangements like “Two Doves”, does not cease during the emergence of the other four band members. Settled in, the band immediately ratchets up the energy, if not the stakes, and glides into the intense harmonized vocal punches of “Cannibal Resource”. In “Cannibal Resource”, also from Bitte Orca, you get a strong taste of the band’s personality. A happy but somewhat mechanical groove punctuated with background vocal punches that are an instrument all their own. Longstreth’s darting falsetto swims amongst these islands of harmony, which also burst into several distinct melodic lines, as if each is the lead voice. Longstreth, still the centerpiece of many songs, shoots the gaps between the crenellated towers of harmony with the curious warble and ornament that comprise his vocal slings and guitar arrows.
Several songs later, when the band launches into “Fucked For Life”, from 2006’s New Attitude EP, even a newcomer begins to understand the Dirty Projectors’ basic pallet. The song’s unison of slightly pained and eerie girl screams are dashes of red across the central figure of Longstreth’s lyric. As for “Fucked for Life”, the eerie girl screams give way to the softer melodies that slow and, for a time, take over the song, letting the song churn back and forth between scream-curdled verses and girl’s choir choruses. The song’s energy doesn’t build to murder. Instead, by the time Longstreth adds his own pained and eerie scream to the women’s’ screams to end the tune, the song has drawn and curdled blood without murdering you. Deliciously devoid of a murderous crescendo, the song’s cacophony and conflicting rhythms suggest a long and fucked up life. Tonight, the sentiment seems appropriate. Both band and crowd are shiny with sweat in the trappings of the 120-degree backroom. Deradoorian flatly states “It’s hot here,” while bass player Nat Baldwin takes off his shirt for reasons of survival, but receives hoots and hollers from the crowd nonetheless.
If the Projectors’ pallet seems at times too repetitious, they handily prove they can refine their style as the evening grows old. The soaring sixteenth note yeah-oh-way vocal runs of “Remade Horizon” float above instrumental syncopation and space so heavy that the bottom of the song disappears, leaving only the floating vocals. Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle sing the ascending arpeggios so softly, deftly, and quickly that the effect is that of a trio of human flutes. “Gimme Gimme Gimme”—part-Bach, part OK Computer acoustic cascade—again finds the female vocalists floating arpeggios better than the right hand of any classical pianist as the three women bend, blend, and toggle their voices like a live synthesizer.
After singular and collective virtuosic performances, the band reaches the shores of their radio-friendly tunes. The band first plays “Rise Above”, replete with the false ending that trails off into Longstreth’s hammered and pulled guitar noodlings. Live, there is no fooling the crowd. Longstreth waits, letting the silence become breathy, but the crowd begins to cheer as the moment arrives for the lush a cappella and minimalism that close the song.
“Rise Above” may be the best of the Projectors’ sound alchemized for pop gold. But the first single from Bitte Orca, “Stillness is the Move”, demonstrates a new dynamic for the group. “Stillness is the Move” is a full break from not only Longstreth’s vocal style, but from the sometimes too-proggy-to-be-humanly-rhythmic rhythms. Since its release, critics have been crooning and preening like proud parents watching the Projectors’ steal moves from radio-friendly cousins like Timbaland without giving up a place on the Art Pop honor roll. And this is true. The intellectual Longstreth has toned down the odd time signatures and allowed math class to become dance class, albeit with a diced up Middle Eastern guitar motif, and the Projectors join the ranks of Byrne and Bjork, artists who often channel their intellectual and technical virtuosity through more common waters.
After a short break, the band returns for an encore. The band first tackles the California sunset in “Temecula Sunrise”, until the mid-tempo clash of rhythms and ethereal vocals give way to the happily collapsing piano chords from their collaboration with David Byrne, “Knotty Pine”. “Temecula Sunrise” gains teeth live, escaping the clean classical and folk tones of its recorded version, while “Knotty Pine” proves that “Stillness is the Move” is not the first time the band has perfected the interminable bliss of the four-minute pop gem.
Are the Dirty Projectors a collaborative effort? Not in conception, but things are changing. Longstreth has wisely added a female voice/instrumentalist to the band over each of the Projector’s last releases, first with Coffman, then Deradoorian, and now Dekle on Bitte Orca. Stepping aside certainly aids Longstreth’s growth as a writer. His own sung melodies too often consist of a held note for others to harmonize alongside. His sonic range is in the upper-middle range to falsetto. He seldom uses the full range of the male voice, nor does he drop into talk-sing or talk-folk-sing or anything aesthetically or stylistically different than his personalized but perpetual siren warble that works best in moderation.
The female voices on Bitte Orca press the Dirty Projectors’ aesthetic and emotional limits not only because of the higher range of the female voice, but because the female lead melodies move in and out of multiple ranges when handling lead vocals. The women sing lead melodies with tones both low and high, adding emotional range and a sense of completeness to the lead vocal performance that is absent in Longstreth’s sung melodies. Amber Coffman’s vocals on “Stillness is the Move” suggest that pop textures live in Longstreth’s imagination as appeals to parts of the soul that Longstreth can’t reach as a one-man band or through his own limited vocal conception. Stepping aside and playing the role of composer and arranger may be Longstreth’s greatest stroke of genius, allowing the Projectors to be a progressive art pop outfit while expanding the bounds of their identity so as not to eat their aesthetic selves inside out.