Don’t even try to put a label on rising indie band Dirty Projectors. It won’t stick for very long.
“Our music combines music from all different corners,” says Dave Longstreth, the Brooklyn-based band’s singer, guitarist and principal songwriter. “It seems like more of an arid activity to make a song in some historical style at this point than to make something out of the music swirling in your head.”
That could be almost anything: Over the course of six albums, Longstreth has continually grown his band — shifting the lineup, drastically tweaking the group’s sound and working under rigid concept strictures for projects: 2005’s “The Getty Address” was a rock-opera about the Aztec Empire and Don Henley, while 2007’s “Rise Above” reimagined hardcore punkers Black Flag’s 1981 record “Damaged.”
The band came into its own with 2009’s “Bitte Orca,” the first Dirty Projectors album to feature Longstreth’s chorus of backup singers — Angel Deradoorian (who’s now on hiatus from the band), Haley Dekle, and his girlfriend, Amber Coffman. The album was a hit with critics, winding up near the top of Pitchfork’s, Time’s and the Village Voice’s year-end lists. And its latest, “Swing Lo Magellan,” might be the group’s most organic disc yet.
Whereas “Bitte Orca” maximized the band’s sound, weaving in elements of hip-hop, R&B, punk, classical music and West African guitar rock, “Swing Lo Magellan” simplifies things. The key elements remain, but the vibe is rawer and looser; some of the tracks even feel like demos.
“I got interested in simplicity,” Longstreth says. “The sound of one thing happening in the speakers becomes gigantic when there aren’t six other things with it.”
The disc still delivers some head-scratchers: “Just From Chevron” ponders a dying oil-rig worker, and the album’s title track was apparently inspired by a brand of GPS device, not the first man to circumnavigate the globe. But there are also plenty of direct, folksy love songs, making for a pretty accessible album.
Just don’t expect that to last.
“I could settle into a groove, or it could change radically,” Longstreth says. “I have no idea.”
Under the Influence
Dirty Projectors reinterpret, riff on and borrow from disparate genres. Here’s a short guide to the band’s many points of musical connection:
The 2005 rock opera “The Getty Address” deals with the Aztec Empire and a protagonist called Don Henley, a name also in use by the former drummer for the Eagles. Longstreth, above far left, later posted a letter online to Henley explaining his intent with the record and thanking him for coloring his view of the world.
Jason Aldean/Eric Church
Production inspiration for “Swing Lo Magellan’s” opening track, “Offspring Are Blank,” came from two contemporary country songs: Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and Eric Church’s “Homeboy.” “Even the most blue-blooded American music is a highly hybridized thing at this point,” Longstreth says. “It’s weird.”
Longstreth sometimes starts writing by making beats and admits “it took a while to get out of late-era Timbaland” mode. The famed producer was an influence on Dirty Projectors’ breakout 2009 hit “Stillness Is the Move.” Though the song is anchored by an African-style guitar, it began as a Timbaland-esque beat.
Beyoncé’s sister Solange Knowles is hip to Dirty Projectors; she even recorded a cover of “Stillness Is the Move” and sang the song live with them. She must have turned her brother-in-law on to the band, too, because Jay-Z tapped them as one of the acts for his Made in America music fest. “I would love to produce for Jay,” Longstreth says. “Make some beats, make some tracks.”
Longstreth followed up “The Getty Address” with another high-concept experiment: re-creating Black Flag’s 1981 LP “Damaged” strictly from memory. Longstreth’s memory must have been sketchy, because the songs he wrote for the project (2007’s “Rise Above”) bear little resemblance to any of the songs on “Damaged.”
If you had to compare Dirty Projectors to anyone, it would probably be new-wave legends Talking Heads. Like Dirty Projectors, Talking Heads were a band in constant evolution, expanding their sound over the course of eight albums. Singer David Byrne also collaborated with Dirty Projectors for a 2009 album to benefit AIDS charities. Plus, both bands have a singer named Dave.
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