“In the midst of this attention to detail and craft, there is an obvious love of fun, something that radiates from the stage like little shards of lightning.” – Siobhán Kane on Dirty Projectors‘ show at London’s Roundhouse last week.
In 2005, David Longstreth wrote a conceptual opera/album imagining the Eagles’ Don Henley as a Spanish adventurer. The Getty Address was expansive – over 25 musicians collaborated on a narrative that took in themes such as ancient Mexico, the oil industry and slavery, and musical references such as birdsong and the choir. Around this time he became “obsessed” by Tristan and Isolde and The Ring Cycle, appreciating the idea of “total artwork”, marrying images and sound to create a sense of complete immersion – and in essence, that is what Dirty Projectors have always done, from their homage to Black Flag’s Damage – (2007’s Rise Above) to their majestic collaboration with Bjork in 2010, on Mount Wittenberg Orca.
They are hugely prolific, yet there is a specificity to everything they do. In many ways, 2009 Bitte Orca is perhaps their most accessible and melodic piece of work, owing a certain debt to the better end of R&B production, but imbuing the record with a grace and feeling that shares more of a dialogue with classical music – with Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle’s swooping, soaring voices creating a pleasing clamour that soothes and sways around Longstreth’s own voice. Harmonic structure has always been at the heart of Longstreth’s compositions, but there is real heart to the work, albeit anchored through intellectual rigour and curiosity – with the emotional landscape lifting the music out of the grasping hands of academia placing it in a far more interesting context.
This all becomes very apparent in their live shows, and tonight at the Roundhouse sees the band on the most positive of curves, illuminated by a creative looseness and fluidity that seeps into the audience; into their heads, legs, and shoes. The bulk of songs belong to their most recent record Swing Lo Magellan, a collection of brilliant bopping songs that reference everyone from L’il Wayne (‘Offspring are Blank‘) to state of the nation politics (‘Gun Has No Trigger‘), and as a musical landscape it is quite thrilling, incorporating tumbling riffs, off-kilter electronic and acoustic beats, with something like ‘Offspring are Blank’ making use of clipped drums, and marching handclaps to make its point – leading us to a restless, rousing chorus. This restlessness is also there on something like ‘Beautiful Mother‘ from Mount Wittenberg Orca, with Coffman and Dekle chasing each other vocally, wildly, to reach a place of strange, burnished beauty and unity.
Referring to the night as “awesome”, Longstreth orchestrates a grand vision, which wears its references lightly, and disarmingly modestly; the looseness of musicality borne of a real connection between the musicians on stage tonight, perhaps cemented by his notably long rehearsal periods that often run on for 12 hours. In the midst of this attention to detail and craft, there is an obvious love of fun, something that radiates from the stage like little shards of lightning. And that is how Dirty Projectors perform – arrestingly, illuminating great musicianship and creativity, incidentally exposing the gaping chasm between much music being produced now, and their own. But it is something Longstreth reflects on constantly, refining his storytelling ability as well as musical – and tonight both abilities are present, from “older song” ‘Cannibal Resource‘ with its forthright, zig-zagging, guitar chords, to the freaky, sloping percussion and orchestral backdrop of ‘Dance For You‘; his virtuosic guitar playing on ‘Just From Chevron‘, or mournful, moving melody on ‘Maybe That Was It‘, sharing an emotional space with the deeply romantic ‘See What She Seeing‘ .What dazzles is the sense of shifting sands, with Coffman and Dekle’s harmonies flying around the place trying to anticipate the changing of time signatures and expectations, and just when you think it cannot get any richer, it does.
Though Longstreth has previously referred to himself as a “dictator” in terms of how he approaches music-making, it comes with a generosity, something he appreciates in other work as well as his own. He once reminisced that he used to listen to The Beatles over and over, while reading Ian Macdonald’s Revolution in the Head to sense the nuances, to understand, in other words, the generosity that can stem from really interesting ideas. This time around, Longstreth decided to tour Swing Lo Magellan only in the band’s favourite venues, avoiding festivals, allowing a better “emotional frequency” – and tonight the Roundhouse brings another element to their music – there is the sense of old industrialisation and simply the concept and reality of industry – something Longstreth navigates, pushing his own (and his collaborators) capabilities and understanding with every attempt, and as someone who is as influenced by Beyonce’s B’Day, as much as Ligeti, and Mesopotamia as much as David Byrne – that understanding is constantly swelling.
As they return for the encore, and those squelching, searching deep beats from ‘Stillness is the Move‘ fill the room, I am struck by the how fresh, moving and alive Dirty Projectors’ music is, as Amber Coffman’s voice contracts and expands fluidly, poetically, sensually – flying around the elements that are there – the positive doo-wop sway, the swaggering hip-hop, the conceit of classical music – and at the heart of it all, a kind of awkward brilliance that is as human as it is impressive. “I can see what you see” Longstreth sings, but tonight, Dirty Projectors see more clearly than most.