Artist: Dirty Projectors

Album: Swing Lo Magellan

One of the most basic music-theory concepts — I don’t know the fancy ones — is the “interval”: the gap between one note and the next. A “first” is the same note repeated. A “third” is two letters apart in terms of the note name: for example, a C followed by an E. dirty-projectors-swingThe third might be a “major third” C to E, “minor third” C to E-flat, “augmented third” C to E-sharp if the key’s eccentric enough, or “diminished third” C-sharp to E-flat. C to G is a “perfect fifth”, part of the major and minor scales. In pop songs, you’ll hear lots of major and minor thirds, lots of perfect fourths, and a fair share of perfect fifths —  but hit songs avoid intervals larger than that. Most of us in the radio/YouTube audience are crappy singers; the bigger the interval, the more likely we’ll sound like an idiot trying to sing along. Therefore, the more likely we are to resent the singer making us feel like an idiot. What a pretentious twit the singer must be, for showing off that way.

Perhaps Dave Longstreth — singer, guitarist, and mastermind of Dirty Projectors — *is* a pretentious twit. He’s prone to explaining his songs in interviews by asking stuff like “What could true dissent be? What is a 2012 Exodus from the Society of the Spectacle, to mix language Situationist and Rastafari?”, which is a smart, interesting question phrased in a really annoying way. Many people find his melodies annoying too. They’re relatively full of sixths and sevenths, leaps towards the unknown; and while I have no intention of laboriously turning his tunes into sheet music, I’d expect to find lots of augmentation and diminishment among his intervals, tricksy violations of the “happy”/”sad” principle of major and minor. Longstreth’s own flexible, keening voice is paired with frequent female harmonies from Amber Coffman and Haley Dake, and together they make some unlikely chords.

Which means, the way *I* hear it, that Dirty Projectors are out there making exciting tunes that few other bands would dare. (Possible bias: my singing voice is thin and erratic, but leaping intervals is a thing I’m okay at.) They’ve also been getting more accessible from album to album. Where 2005’s the Getty Address was slow and dense with classical instrumentation, by 2009’s Bitte Orca it was fair to describe them as a rock band, and Stillness is the Move, a genuine alterna-hit single, was bubbly, funky, and cheerful in its West-African-inflected way. Follow-up Swing Lo Magellan is softer, leaner, and prettier — among the influences Longstreth has cited is the R + B vocal-harmony group En Vogue — and well-designed to win over skeptics to their melodic approach. It finished 11th on the annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, it peaked at #4 on Billboard’s Rock Album chart: not bad.

Highlights: Offspring are Blank is spooky doo-wop over erratic whispering machines, that erupts into classic-rock guitar heroics. About to Die uses African drumming (talking drums included), deep sweet-sounding cello, and an especially long and clever melody that by the chorus — more doo-wop inflections — is even more accessibly lovely than Stillness is the Move, though just as West-African. Gun Has No Trigger has very basic arrangements, putting all its emphasis on the daring interplay between Longstreth’s singing and Coffman’s/Dake’s “ooooohs”. See What She’s Seeing quietly does exotic things with guitar de-tuning, skittering IDM drum machines, and very nice classical violin. Unto Caesar is even relaxed and casual: not the precise, rousing horn parts, but the shuffling rhythm, and definitely the studio back-chatter. I know, I’m obviously supposed to be charmed when one of the gals asks “When should we bust into harmony?” and responds to a Longstreth lyric with “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense what you just said”. But it works, it works.

Bitte Orca remains my favorite Dirty Projectors album: that was a top-10 album for my 2009. Swing Lo Magellan gets a lot of its accessibility via soft, sappy pop stylings: the half the album I’d file under Avant-Manilow is objectively fine yet not for me. Except the single Dance for You, I guess. Plus the echoey, wobbly folk song Irresponsible Tune. A good melody can carry me through a lot, really. And the more notes you’re willing to use, the more melodies you have to pick from.

– Brian Block

To see the rest of our favorites, visit our Favorite Albums of 2012 page!