Dirty Projectors Practice Musical Hygiene on "Swing Lo Magellan"
Dirty Projectors has been around for a decade. This is the group's, what, sixth album? but only the first I've heard since becoming aware of it only a few month ago. How totally clueless have I become?
When I write about Swing Lo Magellan do I fake it and write as if I've known about the group for a decade? I can't do that. So I'll have to admit how unhip and out of the loop I've become.
I know! I'll blame The Beatles and all of the reissues I have to cover. Right!
No, that won't work. I just have to admit how out of it I must be. After all, when I was 30 or even 40, art-groups like this were the musical currency traded by me and all of my friends. We'd get wind of Dirty Projectors early on, buy all of the records, see them live as they moved up the ladder and of course hear them on the radio. That last part is key because who plays such music on the radio anymore? Maybe some college stations at the top of the dial.
Like we went to see The Talking Heads on their first tour when they shared the bill with Bram Tschaikovsky and was it Devo? I can't remember, but I do remember David Byrne's edgy, confrontational stage demeanor and thinking "Who the fuck are you?" Found out that night! It would be like missing XTC for eight years.
A band like Dirty Projectors is right in my musical wheelhouse but I missed them for eight years. What's my problem? I'll blame the suburbs not my age, but maybe I need to get out more.
Whatever. I know what I'm going to write. The review now that I've spent a few weeks listening to the album. Have I waited too long to write about it? My copy is 1346 of 3000. I hope it's not sold out.
Dirty Projectors is the brainchild of 31 year old Yale educated David Longstreth, who wrote, produced and arranged Swing Lo Magellan. Do I have to write that? I mean, the band's been around almost a decade and this site's readers are probably way ahead of me! But in case some are not, I'll leave that in.
The current group includes four members other than Longstreth: Amber Coffman, Nat Baldwin, Brian McOmber and Haley Dekle. What they play isn't specified in the credits but clearly the women sing background vocals and at least a few of them do alot of handclapping. The record has a lot of handclapping. Someone plays bass, someone plays drums. I guess those are Nat and Brian and at least one of the other women might play a guitar.
Longstreth plays guitar, but before getting to the music, I need to tell readers about the packaging. This is definitely not one of those "hey, the kids are buying vinyl, so let's get someone to cut the CD to lacquer, press it at a shitty pressing plant and stick it in a jacket blown up from the CD cover art" type projects. Not at all.
It's a paper on thick cardboard gatefold and get this: it's subtly embossed on front and back cover with dot matrix printing. The cover has the embossed album title that's impossible to read unless you hold it at the right angle in the right light. Otherwise all you see is a photo of three people standing in the winter woods. A big fat older guy, maybe Longstreth's dad or a rural neighbor? And two collegiate-looking young ones, a cute gal, probably one of the band's female members and perhaps the group's leader either pointing or playing air-guitar while the old guy looks on.
The back cover's dot matrix embossing on black paper covers the whole surface other than the "Domino Records" logo that's also embossed. This doesn't come cheaply. The outer jacket's matte paper finish contrasts sharply with the sumptuous high-gloss inside paper. The drawing or painting is of two abstract round balloon-like objects, the signifance of which I can't say, though maybe they are about flying away and doing more exploring.
Inside one pocket is a 10"x10" stitched fold-over of thick, satiny white paper that's embossed with more writing on all four sides. Like the lyrics on Costello's Imperial Bedroom, there's no punctuation but if you thought reading those lyrics was difficult, try these words. You long for an inked stamp pad and a roller to kiss the embossed peaks so you can read what's written without destroying your eye sight. I guess that's "art."
Also enclosed therein is a tall, narrow, austere paper insert containing the credits where we learn Mr. Longstreth wrote, produced and arranged and mixed the album. He also did the art direction and shared the design with Rob Carmichael. The sheet indicates the limited edition number. That costs extra to produce. And it gives you a code to download either an MP3 or a high resolution 24 bit WAV file.
The credits list the string, wind and horn players and thanks many people including Björk and David Byrne, among many others. The two musicians' credits are hardly surprising given the music's odd, off-kilter, rhythmic and melodic constructs.
Remove the 180g LP from the sleeve and the jacket balloons are merged on the color label. The record must have been pressed at RTI and the much welcomed "CB" (Chris Bellman) scribe is in the lead out groove area. He cut from what I assume was a high resolution digital source supplied by mastering engineer Bob Ludwig.
So you see, everything here is first rate, no expense spared, other than had it been an AAA production, but as this recording by Donato Paternostro proves, even in the digits, superb transparency and a compelling three dimensional picture can be achieved if there's a sonic game plan and here there definitely was. And it's a great one.
Clearly Mr. Longstreth is a fully wrapped esthete: his attention to detail encompasses graphics, packaging, sonics and of course music, with special attention paid to guitar sounds created by what they are, how they are played, the effects through which they are played and how they are recorded.
The opening tune begins as a field chant (perhaps meant as a "swing lo" reference?) and suddenly breaks out into full blown cop of Brian May's squooshy guitar sound. The lyrics throughout the album meander from enigmatic and dense to direct and charming and when I review this record I'm not going to attempt to 'splain them but they are earthy, celebratory, mystical, academic and oblique, though the title tune seems to be about exploration (the Magellan part—which could refer to either the explorer or the GPS or both!), whether our literal or figurative shores.
The most accessible and charming is "Dance For You" ( I guess that's the title). It features a rhythm guitar figure that could have come from Longstreth's used record store copy of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears".
The easiest way into this album is the aforementioned "Dance For You" that closes side one. It's got a great hook and an overall endearing quality that contrasts with some of the edgier, quirkier tunes preceding it. But, even those will engross listeners with their consistent inventiveness. I came away hearing familiar elements in the thickets of every tune but overall thinking I'd heard something new and incredibly smart and inventive and follow-up plays confirmed that.
I heard the Björk connection and less directly the Byrne connection but on side two's opener I heard a Country Joe and the Fish connection accidental or purposeful. Longstreth catches Joe's apocalyptic, feedback drenched electric guitar sound and the group's texture and overall feel. Maybe it's a coincidence but it got me to pull out my original Vanguards and play them. Damn those were great recordings and the music was far more sophisticated than that stupid fish cheer that made them famous.
Back to this album though: the arrangements are spare, elegant and conceived from the top down, with particular care paid to the female background singers who swoop siren-like in and out of the picture. Bass lines are clean and James Jamerson like in their clarity of line and understated funkiness. There are also elements here that remind me of James Mercer of The Shins, an oblique Neil Young reference, synth groups like the Postal Service and some others, but more importantly, Mr. Longstreth doesn't seem capable of writing an unoriginal phrase or musical idea.
So are there any downsides to warn readers about? Well yes. The album can sound at times austere, smug and especially precious and contrived, but then so can David Byrne and The Talking Heads but there's so much that's great, you can hear past that.
What's mostly lacking here is an overt sense of humor, or even a hint of levity or playfulness, which is fine. It's okay to be totally serious too. When I mentioned the group to a friend he told me he'd read somewhere that Mr. Longstreth absolutely hates Frank Zappa. Now that's just not right, but given Zappa's mischievous, clownish subtext, perhaps the serious Mr. Longstreth just can't deal with that aspect of Zappa's genius.
Okay, I'm ready to write about this record now. I'll just have to admit to being way out of the loop, below the curve, out of it and maybe even clueless. I just hope there are vinyl copies floating around because I think many analogplanet.com readers will dig this record. Everything about it has been produced with the greatest attention to detail and care, especially the music and sound. I guess now I'll have to buy the rest of the catalog too.