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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dirty Projectors' Swing Lo Magellan: A First Listen

Posted By on Wed, Jul 11, 2012 at 8:48 AM

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By BYARD DUNCAN

Out this week is Swing Lo Magellan, the third full-length from arty Brooklyn six-piece Dirty Projectors. Given the heaps of both acclaim and disdain inspired by the band's last effort, Bitte Orca, we're interested to see if this new one continues the polarizing pattern. Let's give it a spin and find out.

"Offspring Are Blank"

A careful layering of instrumentation -- just crisp handclaps at first, followed by three or four tracks of David Longstreth's baying vocals, followed by those lusciously precise "oohs" and "aaays" -- introduces a tone of sparseness to the album. That sparseness is diddled around with for about one and a half minutes, then skewered by Dirty Projectors' other sonic identity: restless, off-kilter fuzz rock. Pulled between these two extremes, the song takes on the sort of manic intensity you'd see if you strapped a jet engine to a go-kart and asked a caffeinated chimp to take 'er for a spin around the block. To detractors, this is already strong evidence that Dirty Projectors have released yet another, hyper-white weenie rock album disguised as "Art." For the rest of us, it's a positively bitching start.

"About to Die"

A mess of cartoonish surf-guitar chord changes, hip-hop beats, and maybe kind of racist tabla or conga drum overdubs, this could be the soundtrack to every college sophomore's study abroad "cultural encounter" Powerpoint. And yet, on top of all the sanctimony, the Dirty Projectors' female members manage to tease out a downright beautiful chorus about mortality and other very heavy stuff. And was that just a cello? An overall success, in spite of itself.

"Gun Has No Trigger"

Longstreth's at his throaty, histrionic best on this one. Bonus points for the compelling lyrical imagery, too: "Oceans swell;" "Garbage cook[s]." The song, which Longstreth has said is about the impossibility of meaningful activism, is doubly puzzling for its straight-ahead beat and benign sonic aesthetic. Perhaps the goal here is a subversion of popular music's benchmarks -- the hummable verses, the bouncing kick/snare interplay. If this song is indeed the pipe bomb delivered in a Wal Mart shopping bag, then it's no coincidence that it's also the first single released for public consumption.

"Swing Lo Magellan"

Longstreth's dexterous (if not quite pretty) voice is once again the centerpiece on this one. The lyrics ("Last night all my attention/ Squinting westward at the sunset") seem to deal with human fragility in the face of dwindling empire -- or something grandiose, obscure and Longstrethian like that. "There can never be no sympathy/ From that wilderness/ So let it be arrested" -- is the song a critique of expansionism, or simply a wistful tale of maps, compasses, and dear old foolish Magellan? It's over before you can really say for sure.

"Just From Chevron"

We're almost halfway through the album now, and Dirty Projectors' female members have only just begun to sing real, actual words. This is a big relief, given just how fierce and complex and drum-tight their harmonies invariably are. Against the gamy twang of Longstreth's axe, their voices sound that much sweeter; there's even something a little Graceland-y about them here. When the whole band topples in, we are reminded of songs like "Depression" from the band's coarse but brilliant album, Rise Above. For the first time on Swing Lo Magellan, it feels like they're letting go a little bit.

"Dance for You"

More handclaps and quivering, trebly guitar; but this time it all adds up to something undeniably infectious. A bouncing shuffle feel and throwaway lyrics like "I boogied down Gargoyle Street" bring to mind the measured whimsicalities of Belle and Sebastian. Plus, I'm a total sucker for a woodwinds interlude, abruptly followed by a hiccupping guitar solo. Who isn't? Now seems as good a time as any to plonk my "favorite song" flag down into "Dance For You's" fertile soil. Move your ass, Magellan. This one's mine.

"Maybe That Was It"

Clearly feeling guilty for giving us such a tawdry little lollipop of a song three minutes ago, Longstreth launches into a whirring, free-form haunt-fest. There is no discernible beat for more than five seconds, and the lead guitar part keeps dipping in and out of tune. Longstreth's lyrics are (surprise!) cryptic -- and, at one point, about "polished weapons." And yet! Something poignant manages to claw its way out of all this messiness. I find myself rewinding this song to certain moments where everything just seems to collapse into shit, then explode back into a sort of chaotic transcendence. Easily the most challenging track so far.

"Impregnable Question"

Aaand we're back to the pop stuff. More layering -- piano notes, a softly spanked snare drum, occasional tambourine shakes. "You're my love/And I want you in my life." This is the most straightforward love song you might ever hear Dirty Projectors play. Enjoy it while it lasts; it's not even three minutes long.

"See What She Seeing"

"Onward through the murk and the uncertainty," Longstreth sings on this one. It's another love song, but more complex - both in terms of its themes and its instrumentation. A hybrid electronic/acoustic beat swirls around yet more off-kilter robo-guitar licks. It's becoming clear that this album is more a collection of isolated moments and feelings than an attempt at one cohesive narrative. Stylistically, it keeps ping-ponging between sweetness, confusion, and turbulent aggression. If they had wanted to, Dirty Projectors could have produced three mini-albums out of the material they have here.

"The Socialites"

A study in social insecurity, complete with mewing keyboard swells and a jangly beat that conjures to mind expensive trinkets being chucked into a trashcan. You can hear the fury in Amber Coffman's voice as she scolds the listener: "The socialites who act so nice/ Won't ever begin to let you in/ They'll act surprised/ They'll apologize/ Won't ever let on/ The face you're wearing is wrong." There's something provocative in this blunt aggression. It's as if the band finally got sick of trying to sketch their message and just blurted it out.

"Unto Caesar"

Far and away the densest, most richly composed track on the album. A string section whines mournfully during the verses, then blooms into a stunning chorus, complete with saxophones and ascending harmonies. This is the direction I think a lot of people wanted Dirty Projectors to head with the release of Swing Lo Magellan. Instead, they went in 10 different directions. All the layers make the twee speak/sing ad-libbing in between verses almost tolerable. Almost. But damn, though. That chorus.

"Irresponsible Tune"

Longstreth, alone with his guitar, muses on the point of creating music. It would be easy to dismiss this tune as a wannabe cowboy lullaby, sung by a throaty brainiac, if its message weren't so simple -- and heartfelt: "With our songs, we are outlaws/ With our songs we're alone/ But without songs we're lost/ And life is pointless, harsh and long." Enough said.

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Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Byard Duncan @ByardDuncan, and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.

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