[4 February 2010]
There is nothing halfhearted about Dirty Projectors bandmaster Dave Longstreth. His music is at times willfully difficult, yet his ear for intricate compositions and pop melodies seems to know no bounds. As a result, he is both a critical favorite (in the New York Times, among others) and a lightning rod for those suspicious of anyone who draws such acclaim (see the response to that Times piece in Something Awful’s inventively rancorous “Garbage Day” review.)
Although most interviews with Longstreth reflect a perfectly normal, enthusiastic young musician, he does himself no favors by describing his approach to music with such verbosity or insulting experimental forefathers like Frank Zappa. Nor has he actively put to rest a characterization that sees him as a sort of Ivy League a cappella vocal coach-Svengali. While it is easy to imagine Dirty Projector vocalists Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian as beholden Susan Alexander Kane figures, they more than rise to the challenge of singing the arrangements he creates for them. Their vocal calisthenics were one of the standout features of last year’s Bitte Orca.
This relationship—between Longstreth’s difficulty with the art of self-editing and the expert realization by his bandmates of the material he writes—arises again on the four-song Temecula Sunrise. Domino’s original plan to distribute the EP as a UK-exclusive in September 2009 never came to fruition, so the record has been in a state of limbo for a several months. Two of the songs on the EP (the title track and “Cannibal Resource”) appeared on Bitte Orca, and the two new songs (“Ascending Melody” and “Emblem of the World”) are now available for free from the band’s website. The non-album tracks confirm the impressions made and suspicions raised by the previously released material: Dave Longstreth is the Rick James to his band’s Eddie Murphy.
To understand this comparison, consider the music video for Eddie Murphy’s 1985 single “Party All the Time”. There is magic in the studio air. Murphy and his band are in the live room, and James and his entourage are in the control room. Everyone is having a great time, singing and dancing to the tune. Yet soon after the fun begins, James impulsively seizes more control: he gives Murphy mysterious looks, tweaks the mixing console, and sings backing lines. By the end of the song, unable to still himself, James storms the live room, picks up a guitar, and eventually takes over the lead vocal. No one objects.
Like James, Longstreth assembles all of the right personnel and comes prepared with memorable hooks. And so “Temecula Sunrise” begins with irresistible guitar flourishes that surprise and reorient our ears to what is possible in a pop song. None of the other instruments disappoint, as bass, drums, and handclaps dance around and support the main guitar line throughout the song. The one element that threatens to sink the number is Longstreth’s lead vocal performance, and he pursues it with the energy of James laying claim to the studio. This is a style of singing so affected that the listener becomes exhausted trying to grasp hold and make sense of it.
That’s not to say that the singer has a bad voice. “Good” and “bad” singing don’t really exist in whatever genres to which the Dirty Projectors belong, so to apply such standards would be unfair. But one could evaluate the singing on how successfully the execution matches the apparent aim, and in this regard the singing falls short. Longstreth’s emoting, which consists of adding several syllables to words and steering his own smart melodies well beyond a tuneful range, would work if he had a naturally soulful voice. The delivery of contemporary singers like Jim James, Sam Herring, and Andrew Thiboldeaux is often deeply idiosyncratic, but in all of those cases there is an underlying soulfulness that holds the song together. Not possessing that quality, Longstreth undercuts his own material.
This drawback is particularly unnecessary because the other singers in Dirty Projectors are perfectly capable of fulfilling that principal role. They are needlessly relegated to the Eddie Murphy position. It is not as if taking the lead would be more difficult than the kind of supporting work they turn in on this collection of songs. Furthermore, listeners respond positively when these singers do have more significant parts. It is no coincidence that “Stillness is the Move”, a song to which Coffman and Deradoorian made major contributions, was Bitte Orca‘s popular single. And Deradoorian singlehandedly allowed Longstreth to sonically achieve his Björkian aspirations on that album’s “Two Doves”. Additionally, her Mind Raft EP from 2009 showcased her potential as a frontwoman.
“Cannibal Resource” suffers in a very similar way to the title track. The song’s backing vocal collage is stunning, and Longstreth’s arrangement of those voices is to be admired. But once again, the arrangement supports his almost insufferable lead performance. “Ascending Melody” offers the best example of this tension within the music. A climbing bass line and hi-hat/bass drum combination propel competing, jagged guitar lines towards a full-bodied chorus. The female vocalists do their girl-group best in duet. But then comes the Rick James moment as Longstreth quite literally interrupts the song to speak, “That’s good, that’s good. Okay, here we go”. He proceeds to sing a strained ascending melody and ruin the momentum of the song.
In its originally conceived (but ultimately not released) form, the Temecula Sunrise EP concludes with its most coherent song. “Emblem of the World” displays the kind of restraint Longstreth would benefit from using more often. The song contains the single most satisfying drum blast since Shrinebuilder. Simple eighth notes on guitar and percussion are an ongoing element through which the drum blast motif is built. Finally, Longstreth’s reined-in lead vocals come into tasteful balance with the supporting vocals. “Emblem of the World” loses none of its distinction as a Dirty Projectors song, but Longstreth, Coffman, and Deradoorian all sound for once like they are in the same band, on the same song, sharing a common musical goal.