Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan
I can't stand Bitte Orca. No really, the disc drives my up the wall. One of the most ballyhooed albums of the last several years, Dirty Projectors' 2009 effort was praised for its originality and non-conformity, subsistent of pop songs prone to veer wildly in unexpected directions. But what others found innovative just kind of made my head hurt, one delicious hook after another dashed by dissonant harmonies, and manic time-signiture change-ups. So when the group's 2012 effort, Swing Lo Magellan, was released just under two months ago to roaring applause, I took on a, 'fool me once,' sort of attitude. And then I finally gave the thing a try, and it was love at first listen.
Who knew that Dirty Projectors could be this personable, this warm, or this inviting? Swing Lo Magellan is a love album, one of the finest and most affecting of 2012, an earthy production by a band accustom to spending their free time in outer space. Which isn't to say that these guys have lost all their edge: See What She Seeing's lovely harmonies and swelling strings are gloriously leveled by a spaz-out drum machine, while About to Die finds a way to blend longing, morbidity, and self-realization into a pitch-perfect pop oddity. Bandleader Dave Longstreth's vocal elasticity is finally a force of good, backed by the ever-resplendant croons of bandmates Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. The disc has a hugely communal feeling, handing over a gorgeous, shimmering track wholly to the lady vocalists (The Socialites), while neglecting to edit out some of the quiet, humorous mumblings that likely peppered the band's botched takes.
Where Bitte Orca felt adamantly resistant to easy classification and comparison, Swing Lo practically invites it with open arms. A touch of Velvet Underground here, a dab of Neil Young there, a helping of Doo-Wop for added flavor; those who feel the need to name-check will have a field day, as will those with ears. Never before have we heard Longstreth feel so confident without wonky song structures to hide behind, front, center, and unadorned in both the sunset stroll of the title track, and the rosy sway of Dance For You. His efforts become even stronger when he shares the spotlight, floating assuredly above Coffman and Dekle on Impregnable Question, a ballad featuring a lyrical earnestness largely unseen in today's musical landscape, let alone DP's normative freak-show. If you had told me two months ago that the line, "I need you/And you're always on my mind," would repeatedly escape Longstreth's mouth without a hint of irony or foreboding, I would have called you a liar. Turns out, it sounds unfathomably natural. This all goes without mentioning Just From Chevron, both the disc's most radiant and challenging track, opened and closed with the bewitching vocal chemistry of Coffman and Dekle.
A perfect description of the schism between Swing Lo and Bitte Orca exists in the album artwork for each disc. BO's sleeve showed two women, pale and distant, looking in disparate directions from one another, faces covered in splotches of color atop a white backdrop. It's perfectly indicative of the alien nature of the record, fascinating and alluring, but cold to the touch. SLM, on the other hand, introduces itself with a simple photo of three folks conversing in the woods. It's a work entirely more manual and communal than the band's preceding, "classic," which will likely garner them flack for having dumbed-down their oddity. Ignore it. Swing Lo Magellan is built to last, one winner flowing freely into another until the final couplet, the grandstanding, penultimate Unto Caesar, and the hushed, reflective Irresponsible Tune. It's epic yet intimate, ornate yet tangible, maddeningly addictive, and, simply put, a must-have.