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Dirty Projectors, ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ – Album Review

Domino Records
Domino Records

In the hands of anyone else other than Dave Longstreth, Dirty Projectors probably wouldn’t be much more than a pile of eccentricities, an affected and ostentatious caricature of indie rock’s tendency to be weird for weirdness’ sake.

Drawing on West African polyrhythms, sacred harp choirs, French Situationist theorist Guy DeBord and Lil Wayne, Dirty Projectors could have been the sonic equivalent of a warm milk, pickle relish and soy sauce smoothie.

Luckily for us, Longstreth is looking more and more like one of our generation’s rare, wacked out, but probably legitimate, modern day pop geniuses.

Thrillingly, the band’s polymathic frontman/songwriter/arranger/composer and one-man braintrust is able to use his disparate and outright volatile permutations of influences to piece together a sound that’s nimble, consistently bold, and — considering the conceptual cornerstones of it all — way more accessible than it has any right to be.

And furthermore, the experimental Brooklyn troupe has somehow emerged as one of the most exciting and — heck, we’re happy join in on the critical choir here — flat out best American bands of the new century.

‘Swing Lo Magellan,’ the band’s follow-up to their milestone breakout album, 2009’s ‘Bitte Orca,’ is yet another successful demonstration in how to temper high-concept, avant-garde ideas with contemporary pop’s standards. And like with their previous album, the band nimbly demonstrates their ability to be concurrently abstract and groovy in a way unheard of since Talking Heads had the both the streets and the art school dorms dancing during their heyday.

Unlike ‘Orca,’ however, the best points of ‘Magellan’ shine when Longstreth scales back his tendency to be the mad scientist run amok in the music theory building. The album’s first single, ‘Gun Has No Trigger,’ doesn’t rely on the band’s expected musical daredevilry, and ‘Impregnable Question,’ the highlight of the second half, is a heartfelt, no-frills paean (to, presumably, Longstreth’s girlfriend and bandmate, Amber Coffman) that’s more Zimmerman than Zappa. (The former, a noted influence. The latter, a wrongly-assumed influence that Longstreth, quote, “f—– hates.”)

This return to basics also helps Dirty Projectors come off as more human and warmer than their previous outings. After all, the group is notorious for honing their uncanny perfectionism in 12-plus hour rehearsals. And otherwise, they’re instantly recognizable by the female backup singers lined up in an obedient, austere row like trained dressage horses.

But tracks like ‘Unto Caesar’ see the group renovate their strict melodic formalism into musical wabi-sabi: the album’s refreshing imperfection-as-perfection and goofy impulsiveness come through in uncharacteristically pitchy harmonies and a sample of Coffman ribbing her man’s Joycean crypticisms mid-song. (“Um, that doesn’t make any sense what you just said,” she jabs.)

What’s so affecting and, at times, straight up overwhelming about the whole experience of immersing yourself in Dirty Projectors’ music is that the compositional complexities and conceptual affectations that define the band come off so effortlessly, so gosh dang organically.

No doubt, Longstreth is a learned musical physicist. Heck, he has the degree from Yale to prove it. But you can’t just yank albums like ‘Bitte Orca,’ ‘Rise Above,’ or ‘The Getty Degree’ out of a book. ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is yet another demonstration of what happens when intensive training meets inspiration, audacity and wild creativity.

Oh, and get used to hearing that it could be the best album of the year because, yeah, you’re going to be hearing that a lot.

9 out of 10 diffuser.fm rating

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