The Dirty Projectors
“Shut the fuck up,” the mustachioed young man in the lumberjack shirt told the audience. “This song is like 30 seconds long, but you’re not going to hear it if you don’t shut the fuck up.”
This was not what I expected from David Longstreth, the man behind Dirty Projectors, but then, he deserved much better.
I’d seen Longstreth perform before, in a tiny, spotless room in Washington, D.C., for about 15 or 20 people. Most of us sat on the floor as he walked barefoot among us, singing while strumming his unamplified acoustic guitar, or crooning karaoke-style along to richly orchestrated backing tracks. The crowd might hardly even count as a crowd, but it was held rapt by his performance.
On the past two Dirty Projectors records, The Glad Fact and Slaves’ Graves and Ballads, Longstreth alternated between acoustic ballads and fully orchestrated numbers. The albums suggest comparisons to Beck’s Seachange, though they are more adventurous — both lyrically and musically. Dirty Projectors is less bound to folk standards, the ones that Beck often chains himself to, and thus they succeed at carefully wrought and intellectually inspired music without muffling their beguiling effervescence.
Longstreth is the type of performer that Chris Isaak would be had he never been country-fried. He plays with an unadorned, mellow tone that feels both effortless and emphatically sincere. In D.C., given the luxury of a silent house, he showed off the sort of nuanced vocals and sparse guitar playing that you expect to hear only at home on the stereo, never at a rock concert.
To prove my point, my second Dirty Projectors’ show:
The concert was meant to help raise construction funds for a newly birthed but as yet unbaptized artspace in Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood. Located right by the river’s edge, under a looming gas tank, the space is what will eventually be called a “converted” warehouse. For now, converted is a distant dream. Our ticket funds went towards fulfilling the promise that, eventually, the toilet would be surrounded by something more substantial than a tarp.
His upcoming album, The Getty Address, is what Longstreth describes as a “glitch opera” in an unusually detailed artistic statement that seems more suited to a gallery opening than an album. The Getty Address utilizes a women’s choir and a live orchestra but chops them up and recasts them into series of songs about Don Henley, the Aztecs, and of course finches, a recurring theme in Longstreth’s work. On paper, it is a sprawling nightmare vision of post-colonial theory and globalization. Musically, it promises to be an intriguing, challenging conceptual effort that could result in something either spectacular or hopelessly muddled and misdirected.
Of course, the record hasn’t been released just yet, and so when I heard that Longstreth would be performing with a live string section I was intrigued, ready to get an early taste of the album. Seeing a man sing along to backing tracks is never as compelling as having live musicians play along, so I made sure to be there on time. According to the show’s announced schedule, I should show up at eight pm. So there I was at eight, knocking on locked doors.
Flash forward to around 11:00, and the Dirty Projectors — a double bass, two cellos and Longstreth — are taking the stage and tuning up. I’d expected them to play at eight, so I’m a bit peeved. The people who expected to miss them by showing up at 11 are just as put out. They are also much more willing to give voice to their dissent. Though the Dirty Projectors might be amplified this time around, I can barely hear the scrape of bow on string over the sound of a hundred or more sociable hipsters busy enjoying cheap drinks and momentary lapse in the smoking ban (perhaps part of our ticket money will be going to No Smoking signs).
For most of the band’s brief set, Longstreth managed to deal with the majority’s audible disinterest, and the few stalwarts in the front did their best to hear his accompaniment. His voice still showed off the smooth timbre that would have made him a pop singer fifty years ago — if not Frank Sinatra then certainly Bobby Darin. But his voice quivered with what at first might have been nervousness but eventually became anger as he tried to force the crowd to be silent for the last number in the set.
The Dirty Projectors deserve more. Longstreth has released a steady stream of incredibly advanced albums, equally high in both concept and execution, and his next one promises to, at the very least, stay the course. But despite rave responses from a few critics, the Dirty Projectors haven’t found their live niche. Their compositions have as much range in volume as a great classical piece, sweeping from inaudible to deafening, the kind of variety of expression that few rock concerts, or crowds, can support.
In this nameless space, the bands that followed the Dirty Projectors were either synth- and drum-driven punk or screaming hardcore, both quickly turning the center of the floor into a moshpit. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this might not be the best venue for a soft-voiced crooner and his string section. On the sixth of February, the band returns to New York from its native New Haven, Connecticut to perform at Tonic. This small avant-jazz and experimental rock club usually has seating in front of the stage and a regular clientele that is as respectful of a musician’s performance as they are iconoclastic when it comes to traditional musical forms. Tonic will no doubt be a better forum for the Dirty Projectors and their high-minded operetta.
The only question now: should I show up early?