I have to be honest and admit that it took me a while to get into Dirty Projectors’ breakthrough album, Bitte Orca. Although the sheer gorgeousness of “Stillness Is The Move” was pretty self-evident, and the band clearly possessed a whole weaponry of stylistic tics, my initial thought was “Why does it have to be so awkward to listen to?” My eventual love for that album made me dismiss that first impression, but listening to Swing Lo Magellan does make me think back to that original reaction because on this release Dirty Projectors have managed to retain their left-field sounds while recording an album that is refreshing in its directness.
Opener “Offspring Are Blank” starts with hand claps and familiar ghostly harmonies, but soon crashes into a big chorus with crunchy electric guitars, like the band is temporarily channeling the ghost of Led Zeppelin. “About To Die” has an off-kilter rhythm section and an odd string interlude, but again aims for the heights with its refrain of “foolish I know but I’m about to die,” which becomes easy to sing along with after about two listens.
The recently released single “Gun Has No Trigger” is frankly awesome. A shuffling beat and stripped-down arrangement puts the focus on a strong vocal performance from David Longstreth, whose voice remains distinctive without some of the more jarring quirks it has had in the past. The dark subject matter is summed up in another memorable chorus line: “How quick the night draws near / the curtain spreads quicker / the safety’s off but the gun has no trigger.”
It appears that a focus on songwriting ahead of experimentation has benefited Dirty Projectors greatly. Here the band sounds relaxed, never more so than on “Unto Caesar,” where some hilarious in-studio commentary on the song’s occasionally nonsensical lyrics is deliberately left in to give the track a real warm charm. Warmth is the key on Swing Lo Magellan. The album never sounds like anything other than the work of some very talented songwriters finding a groove without sacrificing the traits that made them appealing or watering down their sound.
“Just From Chevron” is a perfect example of this. One of the album’s rare female lead vocals and a simple melody are accentuated with some of that impossibly convoluted arpeggio guitar that permeated Bitte Orca. “Impregnable Question,” meanwhile, is a real surprise: simply lovely and seemingly timeless. Despite the ingredients occasionally being unfamiliar, the end result for the duration of Swing Lo Magellan is undeniably tasty.
In theory, there are a lot of reasons to dislike the band: the obscure album title, the “ironically” bland album cover, the very indie credentials, including being a Brooklyn band. (Well of course they are. Doesn’t it feel like every other new band is based in Brooklyn these days?) However, it would take a real cynic to not look past the surface and see what this band brings to the table. Where the likes of Of Montreal have abandoned ship in terms of their creative focus, Dirty Projectors appear to have sharpened theirs.
Swing Lo Magellan will bring their music to a larger audience. Whether you feel like that was by design has nothing to do with the quality of the end result. Like last year’s amazing Tune-Yards album, this is that great middle ground between limitless possibilities with sound and good old fashioned great songwriting. The best kind of compromise. Don’t call it a sellout.
For more info on Dirty Projectors, including their upcoming Los Angeles date in July, visit their website.