Whenever the Dirty Projectors put out material of any kind, then you listen – no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Their 2009 album Bitte Orca was arguably their most masterful album. Any other release after would surely have a tough act to follow. Enter Swing Lo Magellan (via Domino Records), which is easily one of this year’s most anticipated albums. But if you were to strictly hold the latter to the standard of the former, you would be doing it somewhat of an injustice. It does, however, actually seem to build off of Bitte Orca, showing a faint sign of continuity and familiarity in terms of musical direction, rather than creating something completely new with an ambitious concept (ala The Getty Address and Rise Above). But regardless, just be glad that we have a new Dirty Projectors album; an “album full of songs, an album of songwriting” stated by vocalist/songwriter Dave Longstreth.
Before delving into the album, it should be put into context on how the Dirty Projectors have gone through a slight change since we last saw them. Mainly the fact that core member Angel Deradoorian went on “hiatus” with the band (presumably to venture out into more solo endeavors).
“Offspring Are Blank” opens the album with superficial handclaps and a capella melodies from Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. Another rhythmic layer is then added with electronic hip-hop-style beats (Longstreth said that certain hip-hop artists influenced the recording of the album) that accompany Longstreth. And in typical Dirty Projectors fashion, the instrumentation suddenly shifts to just an acoustic guitar that he sings over. But the transition isn’t rough as it acts as a transition to bring in the crashing drums and an electric guitar riff.
If you’re familiar with the band at all, then arranging seemingly spontaneous instruments together shouldn’t be anything unusual. On “About to Die,” a polyrhythmic layer is created by bongos, drums, occasional drums, and a groove-like bass while the line “about to die” echoes throughout.
One of the highlights of the album is also one of its most simplest, yet striking in “Gun Has No Trigger.” The rhythm is created by a consistent and soft drum beat and a subtle bass line, but what carries this song is the vocals. The soulful melodies by Coffman and Dekle are soothing that rise along with Longstreth’s yearns, hitting its climax when he yells out the line “when the gun has no trigger” and the “oohs” turn into gospel-esque “aahs.”
The self-titled track is a nice change of pace as Longstreth sings with a delicate acoustic guitar and percussion with a steady beat in the background. It’s the shortest track on the album, but it’s refreshing to hear a more stripped down side to the band that relaxes the rest of the album.
Coffman starts off “Just Like Chevron” that features the handclaps once again and a intricate guitar work. It is another show of a polyrhythmic song with different textures that makes it emphasized with Longstreth’s aggressive vocals that take over for the rest of the song. But on “The Socialites,” Coffman takes over lead vocal duties that feature intricate guitar plucking and wobbling synths. Her way of prolonging notes and hitting her highs at certain moments is reminiscent of modern day R&B that has a tinge of soul within. It demonstrates really well on how well of a more-than capable singer she can be.
On single “Dance For You,” his vocals are given a reverb effect that makes it echo throughout the song, especially on his harmonies. The song is carried by handclaps and guitar until it’s just these spontaneous strings that build tension for a matter of seconds. It eventually goes back to its original arrangement, but the strings stay put, lingering in the background to close out the song.
“Maybe That Was It” is a guitar-driven track that’s filled with that distorted twang effect, showing a hint of psychedelic rock during the late 70s. They keep their sound in the past with “Impregnable Question” and “See What She Seeing.” Both delve into the 60s rock and pop categories while covering the themes of romance and love. On the former, Longstreth sings in the ballad “But I need you/and you’re always on my mind” over a piano melody. On the latter, he sings about longing and searching for a loved one over string arrangements: “everywhere I go, I see her/everywhere I look she disappears/every time I think I found her/just what I found is unclear.” The Beatles easily come into mind when taking into account their song structure while listening to these three songs. And on both, Coffman joins in and harmonizes with Longstreth on a few lines while throwing in a couple of vocal melodies as well that makes it a bit more romantic.
“Unto Caesar” is a rather unique track even in Dirty Projectors standards. The actual production and recording of the track is mixed with these spontaneous moments in the recording studio. For example, while Longstreth is singing, moments between Coffman and Dekle asking when to do the harmonies or asking if they’re supposed to sing and saying it doesn’t make sense. This method gives the listener some insight into the recording and writing process, but its inclusion provides the track a rather witty and light-hearted perspective. It makes you question if these moments were actually scripted or candid. But the choice of doing so doesn’t distract away from the overall track. Instead, it provides another point of view to listen to the track and how both the candid moments and actual music work correspond to each other.
With Swing Lo Magellan, the Dirty Projectors have yet again crafted another appealing and solid album. It’s probably their most grounded and accessible album to date, but they still keep their signature intricacy and complexity in their music. A wide range of influences are stark – from 60s pop to contemporary R&B – throughout the album while still incorporating their unique progressive sound into it. Nothing feels awkward or out of place because somehow, someway, what ever vision Longstreth has in his mind, he will carry it out to the best of his abilities and we all just have to trust him.