You Saw This One Coming: Dirty Projectors on the Year End List

Back in January of 2010 I was traveling a lot. It was winter break before my final semester as a senior in college. I spent some of it flying to Colorado and back to visit my sister Kyle. And then I spent the rest of it driving from New Jersey to Massachusetts: driving the length Massachusetts from a small town, Hadley, where a friend of mine lives to Boston, where my other sister, Zoe, lived at the time. I don’t know how my four door civic made it in the New England winter. Anytime there was wind, you could feel the car move and sway on the highway beyond your control. But I do know how I made it through all that. I was listening to my 2009 favorite record of the year Bitte Orca from Dirty Projectors. Yet again, another record it took me months to get into. It happened one day when I was selling off some of my CD collection (which is still monstrous in size) and I was sorting through it in my bedroom at my parents house. I kept Bitte Orca on in the background. And before I knew it, I was singing along. I’d link you to my writing about all of this over at thacant.com, but again, that website was defunct-ed out of my control. I’m beginning to see a trend in a lot of my favorite records and artists, where it has taken me an unusual number of revisits to enjoy them (see: Bon Iver, Titus Andronicus, Dr. Dog, Amy Winehouse, etc.) But hey, I guess that just proves a point to give something – or someone – a second chance.

Another part of the story of Dirty Projectors comes from a friend, Rusty, who had worked with them before. Before Rus was the leading man at a retail store that shall remain unnamed, he used to work at Planetary Records (which it seems doesn’t exist anymore/I think their offices in Boston closed and now some in LA exist.) He then managed this band that is also known for having the dumbest name ever, Cymbals Eat Guitars. (Regardless of whether or not your band is named after a Lou Reed lyric, you should’ve picked a better one.) Rus tells me stories about the Projectors being snide-filled, pretentious, impossible to work with type-of-people. Any ROCK band that asks smokers to please leave the room or to refrain as it might hurt their vocal chords and disrupt their warm up, seems to be a so. Having defended them to Rus over many a conversation, as I truly love their music, he stuck with his side and I stuck with mine. (I then started to see what he meant after I saw them live, but more to come on that later.)

Let me actually tell you what it is I love about their music. The above story starts to shred a little light on that, but in a more direct way, they are a band that challenged me as I listened to Bitte Orca. Then in July this summer it was strange to see them stream their album, of all places, online at the New York Times. Which also did a nice story on the group. When I started listening to it, and every time I start listening to it, I find it strange that a record would begin with hand claps and ‘mm-mmm-mmmmmmm’s’ and ‘oooo–ooooo-oooo-ooo’s’. But that is the strange that is David Longstreth. A man that is arguably too thin and too bizzarre. But when have we ever left ourselves without music because an artist is too off their rocker in whatever sense you want to classify? (see: Lennon, Lou Reed, Kanye West, Mark Oliver-Everett, Julian Casablancas, David Byrne, Fiona Apple, Beck, honestly this list is forever long.) Longstreth writes music with lyrics that don’t make much sense. Sometimes even the band agrees: in the chorus of “Unto Caesar” [below] someone remarks “wait, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Swing Lo Magellan breaks the fourth wall a lot like that. It reaches across the table and spins you on your side, forcing you to listen and think about music differently. There is something to say about any band that can become as successful as they have and remain true to themselves. The unlikely guitar parts and harmonies that live on this record are unsettling and beautiful at the same time. But then again, these are the things that define the music of Dirty Projectors. “Gun Has No Trigger”, their single, was so over-played on Sirius XMU that I hated it for a long time. It seems fitting as track three on the record because it fits in to the rest of the album. But mixing it into a, or any radio playlist, is a tricky feat. Longstreth manages to make music that, it feels, can only be played along side itself. Not a lot of people like this band. But this listener finds that hard to imagine. A lot of the music they make is very folk and traditional. It is some of the most elegant music and arrangements you’ll ever hear. Perfect for lying in bed on a weekend morning or to soundtrack day dreams.

Tracks like “Dance For You” [below] are tripped up with hand claps – one of many themes on Swing Lo Magellan – along with echoing reverb and delicacy. But then it forces itself into “Maybe That Was It”  [also below] a song that starts out and leaves you feeling very uneasy.

An uneasy feeling, unlike the uneasy that artists like Ariel Pink are going for. It is uneasy maybe because of intellectual guilt? Longstreth is a (self) proclaimed genius and is the brainchild of this band with its’ ever-changing lineup. But he manages to share those duties with Amber Coffman, a woman who has one of the most beautiful voices in rock music, and maybe will find herself on a list in stone like that one day. (She lent herself to Major Lazer this year, to sing a track for them that was also over-played, but never under-appreciated. Because it’s perfect.) Although when I saw The Projectors live – after I was unsure of what to expect – Coffman once took the mic and walked around the stage, singing to us like a pop star. I could see her ego inflating with ever high note she hit. Someone once told me that “people don’t want to have to wade through the ego to get to the info.” Which could very well plague this band. Some people have told me that they cannot relate to them, or to their music. But “I need you/and you’re always on my mind” with a simple piano track behind it seems pretty relatable to me.

When two vocalists, or many, share the lead duties (like in Dr. Dog, or say, The Beatles) it gives the group a different kind of  versatility that other bands can lack. It is a valuable seasoning for any record. But particularly here, the voices of Longstreth and Coffman (who are also, I learned, a couple), is quintessential, sharp and in the end, romantic. It is a simple task that not enough bands conquer. Your tracks will always sound unique and never the same. Even as a control freak, Longstreth realized what it brings to his sound and his ability as a writer and musician.

If you need any more convincing, listen to “The Socialites” [below]. It’s lines like “who knows what my spirit is worth in cold hard cash” might win you over. Or it might be its’ easy transition to “Unto Caesar” [above]. It may be the standout track of the record? I have a hard time picking which one I like best. But this one seems to be taking the cake.

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