Dirty Projectors are progressive, but where can they go now?

Photo courtesy of David Demaris

A classic rocker, recalling the situation around 1965 after rock music had been around for about a decade, compared the open possibilities for creating new sounds to being in a room that was empty. The point being, very little had been done so far. R&B could be given a harder beat and the guitar could be emphasized, making Rock & Roll. Jazzy, exotic beats and slick, twangy guitar sounds that had caught on with teen-beat dancers became Instrumental Rock and later Surf Music.  Others coming out of Western Swing amped the drums, dropped the fiddles and pedal steel, and made Rockabilly. All this before the 1950’s were done, leaving plenty of room for folk-rock, baroque-and-roll (think Eleanor Rigby), garage, and psychedelia/space rock (which actually were created in 1959 by Joe Meek but almost noone noticed). Progressive rock (Yes, King Crimson and possibly Pink Floyd), jazz rock, metal, krautrock (Can, Kraftwerk, Neu) new wave and punk would offer new possibilities still in later years.

It’s not like that anymore. Rarely does a rock band do anything really new anymore. In the mid 1990’s Stereolab used exotica, jazzy space age bachelor pad music, Brazilian tropicalia, avant-garde electronics, French ye-ye and krautock to very good effect, at times creating fresh, vibrant sonic colors. Tortoise took a similar, radically non-obvious approach, with more muted tones and an interest in murky echo, Martian electronics, and oddly funky rhythms. Again, something genuinely creative was emerging out of genetically modifying older lifeforms.

If there are tons of new rock bands out there creating new genres, I’m not hearing it so far.

This is much of why what the Dirty Projectors do is so significant.

The best I can say is that about a third of the time, when they do bright and high vocal harmonies that cut above everything else, and psychedelic afro-pop guitar on top of complex polythythms, they are not utterly unlike mid-period Talking Heads combined with early Yes.

Or something. Got any better comparisons?

Dirty Projectors emerge around 2002 as an arty and conceptual project of one David Longstreth. His weirdo late-night college-radio music morphed by the mid-to-late 2000’s into a startlingly inventive and novel mutation of existing music. With a shifting cast of highly talented young musicians, Dirty Projectors quickly became noticed by critics and legions of scenesters.

Their live shows from this period were an art-pop extravaganza, with beautiful wailing from Longstreth and some superb lady vocalists/instrumentalists and layers of sound. The tunes changed at unexpected moments, with gorgeous melodies bursting from the singers while the bassist and drummer played bombs or a gentle throb. The afro-pop element came through clearly in the guitars, yet the meters were often odd and jagged and complex, making….afro-prog? They owe as much to pop and modern R&B as to prog rock, like the missing link between Beyonce and King Crimson.

Like hearing Stereolab and Tortoise in the mid-oughts, Dirty Projectors proved it hasn’t all been done. I tell people they are one of the most creative bands in the world. It is very hard to classify them; indie-rock does not help. They are a form of progressive rock, but leave out the mellotrons, lasers, and tales of wizards.

They came to Austin a few days ago supporting their new record Swing Lo Magellan, and played a number of songs from it first.

I wondered if they could top themselves after their fantastic live shows three to six years ago. The first few songs were more “normal” than I was used to, and I imagined they were following the trajectory of countless bands who start off experimental, hit their stride with a creative and distinctive synthesis that gets an audience, and then inexorably become seduced by the mainstream. In statistics, this is called “regression to the mean”, but think “Sting”.

Happily, all is well in Dirty Projectors land. They put on a simply amazing show. The new material off Swing Lo Magellan holds up. Live, they are clearly at the top of their game, utterly in command of their ambitious and technically demanding material. Very few bands this side of Tortoise or King Crimson can pull this sort of thing off. Interestingly, vocalist/guitarist Amber Coffman, who makes fantastic birdlike trills and calls,  is clearly emerging as an artist in her own right, and as the crowd favorite. The lineup has stabilized compared to previous years, with the immensely talented Nat Baldwin on bass.

Photo courtesy of David Demaris

They seemed thrilled to be back in Austin. Amber Coffman told me she used to live here, and they made a point of highlighting all their Austin connections. I thought I heard them say one of the new ladies, Haley Dekle, was an Austinite? Austin clearly loves the Dirty Projectors, there were at least five or six hundred people there, maybe one thousand.

Where can they go now? It is hard not to think they have peaked in terms of what they can do live. They are at that inflection point where they could easily become less experimental and hope for an actual hit record. Some of the material is rather similar to hit R&B. They could of course pull off a radical move and confound expectations by doing a more “out there” album next. Stay tuned, this band is going places.

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