Dirty Projectors
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The Graceful Fallen Mango (2002), 6/10
The Glad Fact (2003), 7/10
Morning Better Last (2003), 6/10
Slaves' Graves and Ballads (2004), 6/10
The Getty Address (2005), 7/10
Rise Above (2007), 5/10
Bitte Orca (2009), 6.5/10
Swing Lo Magellan (2012), 6/10
Dirty Projectors (2017), 5/10
Lamp Lit Prose (2018),

Dirty Projectors is the alias for New York-based singer/songwriter Dave Longstreth, who had debuted under his own name with the home-made The Graceful Fallen Mango (This Heart Plays Records, 2002). The lo-fi feeling was still prevalent on The Glad Fact (Western Vinyl, 2003), although the degree of eccentricity had already skyrocketed. After a surreal instrumental overture, Glad Fact mimicks the vocal harmonies of the doo-wop era but then turns into a neurotic psychodrama of shrieks and laments. Off Science Hill sounds like a misguided attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a ballad from the same age. Ground Underfoot digs even deeper, into smoky nocturnal lounge jazz. Naked We Made It mocks the jangling folk-rock style of the 1960s. A retro feeling exudes also from My Offwhite Flag, that may sound like an exotic-tinged ditty by the Drifters before the madhouse drums and horns move centerstage. It's the madhouse element that prevails, though, in songs such as the lopsided David Thomas-esque litany Boredom Is A Product, the introverted blues dirge Lit From Below, and the neoclassical ballad sung in an operatic register over an obsessive quasi-boogie rhythm Three Brown Finches. Further misplaced is the shapeless Imaginary Love, with gospel organ and twangy guitar. The arrangements are spartan, somewhat irrational and sometimes plain out-of-tune. The musical nadir of skeletal lullabies such as Like Fake Blood in Crisp October (that mauls a melody worthy of Queen) and Two Brown Finches (that squanders a melody worthy of a Broadway musical) pushes Longstreth far away from the center of mass of lo-fi songwriters of the 1990s.
Proud of his vocal gift, Longstreth tended to howl his confessions rather than whisper them. Facing up his inner ghosts, he let his voice waver, crack, whip and soar.
Longstreth came through as a hybrid being, like a cross between Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens, capable of vocal gymnastics that challeges the dogmas of singing.

After the Internet release Morning Better Last (States Rights, 2003), that collected unreleased material from three triple albums of 2001 and 2002, Slaves' Graves and Ballads (Western Vinyl, 2004), that collects the material of two prior EPs, refined the project by adding the arrangements of a ten-piece chamber orchestra (the Orchestral Society for the Preservation of the Orchestra) on a group of songs that further enhanced the melodramatic element as well as the eccentric nature of his performance. On the Beach conveys his psychosis through a surreal luxuriant soundscape that wed the VanDyke Parks and Bjork. Hazard Lights is an odd blend of traditional folk music and avantgarde symphonic music. The grand aria of Grandfather's Hanging is dwarfed by baroque and romantic passages. The peak of pathos is achieved in Grandfather's Hanging, a gentle lullaby punctuated by martial and jarring arrangements.
The second EP (for just voice and acoustic guitar) basically represents the alter-ego of this ornate music, but ultimately it sticks to the same loud and neurotic persona. The naked and whispered Unmoved, the tiptoeing meditation of Since I Opened and the serenade-like croon of Ladies You Have Exiled Me, focus on his lyrical (and sane) side, and complement the turbulent bard of the first half. The man has never sounded so sober and linear as on this EP.

The Getty Address (Western Vinyl, 2005) is an over-reaching effort that loses most of the captivating idiosyncracies of The Glad Fact as it tries to live up to avantgarde compositional techniques and post-modern deconstruction theory. The orchestral experiments of Slaves' Graves and Ballads form the foundations for songs that are scored for the most unlikely combinations of voices and instruments. Not all of them work, but I Sit on the Ridge at Dusk for women's choir, cowbells and orchestra, D. Henley's Dream for fluttering orchestra and ghostly choir (perhaps the most intriguing score), Time Birthed Spilled Blood for strings and drum loops (sung by a female guest vocalist), and especially Warholian Wigs for orchestra, glockenspiel, guitar and several percussion instruments, rank among the most creative pieces yet assembled by the digital generation. The female choir, in particular, is much more than just a decoration, acquiring the status of lead "voice" in Gilt Gold Scabs, and dueting with the singer in Finches' Song At Oceanic Parking Lot like bacchants in a Greek tragedy. The creative nonsense of The Glad Fact is still alive and kicking only in musical puzzles such as I Will Truck, Ponds & Puddles and especially Not Having Found, whose digital effects, intricate vocal counterpoint, syncopated drum loops and horns evoke the exotic and decadent music-hall of Kevin Ayers. His passion for popular music of the past still yields Tour Along the Potomac for handclap, glockenspiel, drums and trumpet, a tribute of sorts to the jazz age, and Jolly Jolly Jolly Ego, a disco shuffle fronted by a soul falsetto. This was the Dirty Projectors' most difficult album yet, a painstakingly assembled charade of more psychological than aural events. The neurotic introspection of The Glad Fact had turned into an enigmatic and unbalance form of extroversion. The Getty Address is occasionally terrific and terribly occasional.

Rise Above (Dead Oceans, 2007) was a reinterpretation of Black Flag's Damaged. Not just a tribute album, but a song-by-song alteration of the original sound and spirit: lightning-speed guitar riffs turned into orchestral passages, angrily shouted refrains turned into crooning or multi-part vocal harmonies, dissonance turned into muzak. Rather than covers these are remixes, as Dave Longstreth takes an unlimited number of liberties with the original material. It almost sounds like an insult to the memory of a hero. A sort of post-mortem censorship.

Bitte Orca (Domino, 2009) achieved a more uniform synthesis of the two artistic egos of Longstreth's schizophrenia: the eccentric and precarious constructs of The Glad Fact versus the classy and intricate orchestration of The Getty Address. The result disappoints in Cannibal Resource, that sounds like a funky-soul ballad covered by a group of noise-rock circa 1985 (by the likes of Polvo). Fluorescent Half Dome is an even more serious stab at languid balladry. Another dancefloor ditty, Stillness Is The Move, fares better on account of the almost a-cappella female vocals (Amber Coffman) over a catchy syncopated beat. But this is another act, only vaguely related to the original mission of the Dirty Projectors.
The jarring and convoluted Temecula Sunrise, however, shows how the concept can still succeed: the vocals span a number of styles while the guitar grates, the drums fiddle around aimlessly and the female choir pretends to know which melody is being sung. The Bride reinvents the format of the folk elegy juxtaposing hard-rock riffs and old-fashioned choral hums. Remade Horizon is so volatile that it sounds like the mix of a hysterical dj, although with strong African overtones.
Another female lead carries the gentle neoclassical melody of Two Doves in a simple scenario, barely perturbed by low-key strings. This is a third strand of the album, hardly related to the other two.
Useful Chamber sort of mixes all three strands. There is a simple folk-soul melody, there is a disco beat, there is a female choir; but then a discordant guitar abruptly breaks the mold, the drums slow down, and the wordless female choir takes the lead, although it doesn't seem to have a song to sing. Longstreth rants like Van Morrison at his most delirious, and then delves into a hard-rock jam.
Longstreth has rediscovered the classic song format, and the result is far less personal than before.

Mount Wittenberg Orca (2010) was a collaboration with Bjork

Continuing the descent into simple, traditional, radio-friendly structures, Swing Lo Magellan (Domino, 2012) is the album of a derivative singer-songwriter (Dave Longstreth) who has listened to a lot of pop hits of the 1960s (and even earlier decades): Offspring Are Blank harks back to the operatic hard-rock of the Queen, Gun Has No Trigger is a Paul McCartney-ian ballad, Swing Lo Magellan evokes Bob Dylan circa 1964, Dance for You echoes Phil Spector's hits, Impregnable Question matches a stuttering ska beat with a Prince-ian elegy, and Irresponsible Tune even travels back to the era of doo-wop vocal groups. None of these would have made it to the albums of the originals. There are a few eccentric moments that link back to the band's early days, from the sub-bass enhanced digital balladry of The Socialites (with Amber Coffman again on lead vocals) to Maybe That Was It, that surprisingly slides into Art Bears-like jazz-rock. The return to simplicity has come full circle.

Meanwhile Longstreth was clearly drifting out of indie-rock and towards neosoul and rap via collaborations with Kanye West, Rihanna and Solange.

Amber Coffman, having dumped her boyfriend Dave Longstreth, debuted solo with City Of No Reply (2017), while Dave Longstreth kept the band's name alive (but without the band) with the break-up concept Dirty Projectors (Domino, 2017). Engineered by veteran Jimmy Douglass (and frequent Timbaland collaborator), this is possibly the most baroque break-up concept ever. Each song is vivisected and reconstructed through meticulous cut-up and glitchy arrangements. The opening dirge Keep Your Name is littered with tiny sound effects and even includes a rap intermezzo. The slow ballads Little Bubble and Ascent Through Clouds (meant to be the emotional peaks) each has so many sonic distractions that such distractions constitute de facto a parallel (and more interesting) song. The soundscape and the song are not well integrated, which grants the landscape a life of its own. Decoupling the two makes each weaker instead of making the whole stronger. Death Spiral alternates between colloquial singing and hysterical falsetto and in between adds and subtracts all sorts of nuances. The seven-minute Up in Hudson begins with a horn fanfare and ends with a distorted Afro-electronic percussive coda. The Caribbean shuffle Cool Your Heart, a duet with Dawn Richard (cowritten with Solange), is a bit more coherent but still bombarded with electronic sounds. Even less contaminated is I See You, an odd novelty that sounds like a gospel organist performing UB40's reggae version of Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe and then straddling into a cover of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale while the preacher reaches deep into his soul and sees the light. The problem is that, stripped of the sonic detours, the songs would be plain and tedious, so one tends to judge them based on the sonic detours, not on the bulk of the music (which would be pretty monotonous); which of course makes one wonder why he wasted energies writing down the melodies and the lyrics, especially since his crooning is not exactly "music" and his lyrics are not terribly interesting. Just like other famous break-up albums (Bob Dylanís Blood on the Tracks, Nick Cave's The Boatmanís Call, Kanye Westís 808s and Heartbreak and Beckís Sea Change), the break-up does not provide the best inspiration of the artist's music: it mostly highlights the artistic limitations.

Lamp Lit Prose (2018).

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(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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