The new Dirty Projectors album

06:04, Jul 19 2012

It's amazing. It's called Swing Lo Magellan. And I'm besotted with it, by it.  (Go on, buy it). Dirty Projectors has something of a fluid line-up. Formed around David Longstreth and his partner Amber Coffman, the band that recorded Swing Lo Magellan is quite different to the group that recorded 2009's Bitte Orca and toured New Zealand in 2010. There's a new drummer and there used to be three female vocalists.

So it's Longstreth's project, basically. But I like the way it always feels like a band - he might come up with the songs, he might lead the songs (and he very much takes the lead on the latest album) but he couldn't do this alone.

I should clarify that I like Bitte Orca a lot and I really like the EP recorded in collaboration with Bjork, Mount Wittenberg Orca. I also admire the work ethos - an album or EP every year for a decade - and some of the crazy ideas: 2007's Rise Above is an earnest attempt at covering Black Flag's Damaged album having not listened to the original in close to 15 years. (Well, so the story goes...)

And that's been part of my problem with Dirty Projectors in the past. The concept of story, the idea of gimmickry, or the band hanging on to anything outside of the song to sell the sound - Bitte Orca is great, it has moments that are magical, but it feels, ultimately, like a set of exercises.

It was impossible for me to listen to Dirty Projectors without being convinced that Longstreth and band were always overly pleased with themselves.

And so often the songs felt like they were designed to showcase textures and arrangements rather than actually having anything to say, rather than existing for the worth of the song - or even in the shape of a song.

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So maybe some long-time fans of Dirty Projectors might not like what they hear with Swing Lo Magellan, or maybe this album will still appeal - but all I know is I swallowed it, hook, line, sinker right from the first listen. And it's been the album I've listened to the most in the last week - there's a desperation to hear it again. And again. Moments linger longer than with previous Dirty Projector albums, whether it's Maybe That Was It with its drunken, searching pull of guitar, Jeff Beck hungover and forced to work on a cheap Cash Converters guitar, or Impregnable Question - for me the highlight of Longstreth's composing career, something that somehow feels immediately, instantly fresh and new but also references Beach Boys and other 1960s landmarks. And wouldn't be out of place entirely on those recent, grown-up and serious, Wilco albums.

I carry the skittering percussion and relentless loops of guitar of Just From Chevron with me. I have it circling in my head in the hours of the day when I'm not listening to his album.

Gun Has No Trigger plays through - between my ears - even when my headphones aren't on. (And what a wonderful headphones-album this is!)

I make comparisons to Yo La Tengo, not because that is some hip benchmark, not because the groups sound like one another so much either, but because there's that feeling of depth, of obsession, there's the careful, studied subversion of pop and rock music that came before them - of finding a new layer by burrowing through and under, coming up with a newly found sound by exploring all that came before rather than ignoring.

Sometimes I listen to Swing Lo Magellan and I hear a set of sounds that is exclusive to the record - that only exists in the time and space when the album is being played. But I can spot influences and references as well; in short I can get lost in this album. I'll tunnel out after making my own map. That's the sort of music I crave. I want to be caught up in the music - and I want this to happen because of the music.

Here David Longstreth still shows an incredible arranging skill, still plays with the songs while playing them - but this time he remembered to write them. These songs feel like tunes that have a decent shot at lasting, at meaning something.

And I love his guitar playing. He dribbles, then spits, then spews over the lines, weaving mellifluous lines into place then splatter-painting across them with traces of West African guitar that is also often rubbery and ever so slightly punkish. So, yes, Talking Heads-esque, passingly. Adrian Belew and Captain Beefheart too (or Gary Lucas, I should say).

I'm amused by Longstreth's vehement dismissal of Frank Zappa - it must have really bugged him to hear a comparison at some stage. But it's valid, even if he's not a fan - even if he's never paid Frank any attention at all. There's something in the way he hears sounds and bends them to still suit a song but sit outside of the norm, just out of the frame but still in view. And there is, particularly, something Zappa-ish about the way he arranges vocals, in the way he hears a harmony - and in the way he therefore wants us to hear it.

Swing Lo Magellan might be more accessible than other Dirty Projectors albums but it's still a fascinating, sweeping, challenging album. And one that still clocks in under 45 minutes. Correct album length.

Here's the title track (definitely one that Wilco fans could enjoy), check out About To Die and Dance for You also. See What She Seeing and The Socialites too. That's about half the album I've provided links for - so that should give some indication of the ideas - and range - on Swing Lo Magellan.

What do you think? Have you fallen under the spell of this album? Is it something you think you could dig? Is it something you're already on board with? Are you a Dirty Projectors fan? Or are they not for you at all?

And what's the latest album that you have fallen head over heels in love with? You can't stop playing it - you look forward to hitting play straight away again, as soon as it finishes its run. 

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