Dirty Projectors have been a part of my life since I heard their first album, The Glad Fact. At the time, I knew nothing about Dave Longstreth or the album he’d recorded under his own name as a college freshman, The Graceful Fallen Mango – an album I’ve always wanted to call “a fine slice of New England soul music” (whether or not that’s really accurate). The Glad Fact inspired me to write my first and only record review, in which, with all the awkwardness befitting an inexperienced and overzealous writer, I proclaimed,
“Dave Longstreth is making his own fucked-up version of American music.”
It’s funny to think that I would go on to play in the DPz touring line up and have my keyboard playing make it on to the New Attitude EP – let alone become budz with the dude!
When I first met Dave he mentioned that he’d read the review and asked what I meant by “fucked-up American music.” I found it hard to articulate any sensible reason why I’d used that description, but some deep, non-verbal part of me felt like bro, it’s really true.
Now, four game-shifting, next-level DPz releases later, I’m hearing the newest album, Bitte Orca, for the first time and that awkward phrase is crawling back into my head.
Staring at the album’s title and tracklisting, I feel a little shut-out. I can’t glean any concept or narrative from titles like “Cannibal Resource” or “Useful Chamber.” I start to realize that this album can’t be explained as reductively as Rise Above (“Damaged re-imagined”) or The Getty Address (“concept album about Don Henley with nods to modern R&B”). This is exciting.
At first, I listen to this record hunting for a theme. I hear big riffs that make me think of classic rock, so I think, “Is this Led Zeppelin deconstructed?” I hear folk guitar picking and gorgeous strings, so I think, “Is this 60’s folk-pop re-imagined?” But, as is usually the case, my lame attempts at categorization fade away and soon all I can hear is Dirty Projectors.
You can look at the DPz discography and divide it up by recording quality (lo-fi vs. poppin fresh), supposed influence (old 60s shit vs. new “urban” flavor), or instrumentation/cast of characters (lone wolf CT shaman vs. heavyweight “rock ensemble”). It’s easy to look at it like this; stops along the way, “artistic growth”, career arc – Bitte Orca jumps these rails and it’s awesome.
Ultimately, I don’t hear Brian’s brutally excellent drumming or Dave and Amber’s riffs as “classic rock” signifiers. “Temecula Sunrise” is not the sound of Dad cracking open a brew in ’75. It’s not Physical Graffiti for 2K9; it’s 2K9’s Physical Graffiti. You feel me?
Bitte Orca’s most exciting musical reference point is DPz themselves. A certain way of singing or playing guitar that was just a germ on The Graceful Fallen Mango and maybe really started standing out on Rise Above, is now a full-blown style and this album represents its ascendance.
Dave found the handful of musicians (Brian, Amber and Angel) who are his worthy collaborators and incorporated them into DPz in a way that fundamentally changes the game.
I hear Amber and Angel’s ill lead vocals (on “Stillness is the Move” and “Two Doves”) and not only do I hear two insanely talented and powerful women (the Serena and Blair of a better world) but also shades of Dave himself, as if my old conception of DPz had exploded and was now reborn through new avatars. What I hear in Bitte Orca is new life.
It’s tempting to listen to Bitte Orca as a series of signifiers – re-arranged, deconstructed, POMO’d, whateva – but in the face of such living, breathing music this would seem overly morbid. If the guitars can recall classic rock or grunge, it’s not because they’re returning to those styles, but maybe because they represent the next loop on the eternal, golden chain.
“Isn’t life under the sun such a crazy, crazy dream?”
What will most people make of a phrase like that? New age nonsense? The lyrical MS-DOS of pop robots? Overly used phrases and overly played guitar tones can seem devoid of meaning until someone like DPz finds the kernel of excitement that hides but never fades away and lets it rise up like the ’93 Suns. There’s a gigantic difference between plumbing the depths of pop garbage for jokes and empty memories and looking for truth where we all forgot it existed. You know how people sometimes say, “It’s funny cuz it’s true”? Well, it is!
I couldn’t explain what I meant about “fucked-up American music” six years ago and I’m not that interested in trying to explain it now. I just think it’s fitting to describe DPz with a phrase that’s been exploited by the worst of the worst and the corniest of the corniest, but has always had the potential to mean something rad: