The career path of Dirty Projectors over the last decade has mirrored that of their peers Animal Collective to a large degree. Both bands have honed their eccentric and experimental sounds over the course of multiple albums, and each has moved closer to actual pop songs without having to significantly waterdown their sound. If Animal Collective’s critical and commercial peak was Merriweather Post Pavillion, Dirty Projectors hit their stride most confidently with last year’s Swing Lo Magellan, the follow-up to the excellent Bitte Orca and the band’s finest album to date. They have been playing much bigger venues than the Troubadour over the last 12 months, but this tiny show was an excuse for about 300 excitable people to see one of America’s finest indie bands in a setting as intimate as you’re ever likely to get these days.
I had my worries early on when the band took to the stage as a four-piece to loosen up with the title track off their latest album. Amber was up there, but where were the other women? Luckily, the opener was just a tease, as the rest of the band took to the stage at the end of the song. The group then leapt into a rousing rendition of “Offspring Are Blank,” the last chorus of which exploded in a wall of guitar distortion that no doubt woke up anyone in the crowd who wasn’t quite “there” yet. So it was for the next hour and a half, as the six-piece displayed every weapon in their arsenal and proved themselves to be one of the most unique and exciting bands on the live circuit.
The most thrilling aspect of a Dirty Projectors show is that it really shouldn’t work. These polyrhythmic songs with their odd details and flourishes are all well and good in the studio, where any amount of production trickery can hide a multitude of sins, but on stage the whole thing feels like it could and should fall apart at any moment. The fact that it does not is testament to the band members’ sheer level of musicianship. In addition to sharing lead vocal duty, both David Longstreith and Amber Coffman are accomplished guitarists, and indeed Longstreith’s oddly limber style of arpeggio is particularly captivating. The other members of the band contribute to the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink sound that makes their music so multi-dimensional.
Dirty Projectors’ newly improved pop nous is what has really elevated them into the indie stratosphere. “About To Die” may feel lyrically heavy, but hearing the band belt out the chorus, it feels huge and impossible not to sing along with, even given the presence of the song’s clattering rhythm section. “Impregnable Question” came at the end of the show, but still sounded like some lost, timeless ballad. The presence of quirkier older material from as far back as Rise Above showed the progress the band has made in the songwriting department.
Despite all this, it is the vocal performance of Dirty Projectors that really sets them apart as an elite live act. Longstreith has eliminated the more grating aspects of his voice, maturing into a singer of real range. Amber Coffman has the kind of voice that would get her through several stages of whatever happens to be the current US TV talent show of the day, if she were so inclined, but it’s the three-part female harmonies that are most mind-blowing. They go from blending like honey and yogurt to being a full-on pyrotechnic force. When performing a couple of tracks off the Bjork collaboration Mount Witteberg Orca, there were plenty of heads shaking in the crowd as audience members collectively wondered, “How are they even doing that?”
This was a victory lap show. It has been a big year for the band, and of all the much-vaunted Brooklyn indie acts, Dirty Projectors was the one to have their moment in the spotlight last year. Playing the Troubadour, no more than a few feet from almost everyone in the venue, felt like a “Thank you” to the most loyal fans, and the thanks was very much welcomed. We probably won’t hear from Dirty Projectors for a short time, but they’re entitled to bask in the glory of a wonderful album for now.
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