Dirty Projectors' Swing Lo Magellan: A First Listen

Categories: First Listens

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By BYARD DUNCAN

Out this week is Swing Lo Magellan, the third full-length from arty Brooklyn six-piece Dirty Projectors. Given the heaps of both acclaim and disdain inspired by the band's last effort, Bitte Orca, we're interested to see if this new one continues the polarizing pattern. Let's give it a spin and find out.

"Offspring Are Blank"
A careful layering of instrumentation -- just crisp handclaps at first, followed by three or four tracks of David Longstreth's baying vocals, followed by those lusciously precise "oohs" and "aaays" -- introduces a tone of sparseness to the album. That sparseness is diddled around with for about one and a half minutes, then skewered by Dirty Projectors' other sonic identity: restless, off-kilter fuzz rock. Pulled between these two extremes, the song takes on the sort of manic intensity you'd see if you strapped a jet engine to a go-kart and asked a caffeinated chimp to take 'er for a spin around the block. To detractors, this is already strong evidence that Dirty Projectors have released yet another, hyper-white weenie rock album disguised as "Art." For the rest of us, it's a positively bitching start.

"About to Die"
A mess of cartoonish surf-guitar chord changes, hip-hop beats, and maybe kind of racist tabla or conga drum overdubs, this could be the soundtrack to every college sophomore's study abroad "cultural encounter" Powerpoint. And yet, on top of all the sanctimony, the Dirty Projectors' female members manage to tease out a downright beautiful chorus about mortality and other very heavy stuff. And was that just a cello? An overall success, in spite of itself.

"Gun Has No Trigger"
Longstreth's at his throaty, histrionic best on this one. Bonus points for the compelling lyrical imagery, too: "Oceans swell;" "Garbage cook[s]." The song, which Longstreth has said is about the impossibility of meaningful activism, is doubly puzzling for its straight-ahead beat and benign sonic aesthetic. Perhaps the goal here is a subversion of popular music's benchmarks -- the hummable verses, the bouncing kick/snare interplay. If this song is indeed the pipe bomb delivered in a Wal Mart shopping bag, then it's no coincidence that it's also the first single released for public consumption.

"Swing Lo Magellan"
Longstreth's dexterous (if not quite pretty) voice is once again the centerpiece on this one. The lyrics ("Last night all my attention/ Squinting westward at the sunset") seem to deal with human fragility in the face of dwindling empire -- or something grandiose, obscure and Longstrethian like that. "There can never be no sympathy/ From that wilderness/ So let it be arrested" -- is the song a critique of expansionism, or simply a wistful tale of maps, compasses, and dear old foolish Magellan? It's over before you can really say for sure.

"Just From Chevron"
We're almost halfway through the album now, and Dirty Projectors' female members have only just begun to sing real, actual words. This is a big relief, given just how fierce and complex and drum-tight their harmonies invariably are. Against the gamy twang of Longstreth's axe, their voices sound that much sweeter; there's even something a little Graceland-y about them here. When the whole band topples in, we are reminded of songs like "Depression" from the band's coarse but brilliant album, Rise Above. For the first time on Swing Lo Magellan, it feels like they're letting go a little bit.

"Dance for You"
More handclaps and quivering, trebly guitar; but this time it all adds up to something undeniably infectious. A bouncing shuffle feel and throwaway lyrics like "I boogied down Gargoyle Street" bring to mind the measured whimsicalities of Belle and Sebastian. Plus, I'm a total sucker for a woodwinds interlude, abruptly followed by a hiccupping guitar solo. Who isn't? Now seems as good a time as any to plonk my "favorite song" flag down into "Dance For You's" fertile soil. Move your ass, Magellan. This one's mine.

"Maybe That Was It"
Clearly feeling guilty for giving us such a tawdry little lollipop of a song three minutes ago, Longstreth launches into a whirring, free-form haunt-fest. There is no discernible beat for more than five seconds, and the lead guitar part keeps dipping in and out of tune. Longstreth's lyrics are (surprise!) cryptic -- and, at one point, about "polished weapons." And yet! Something poignant manages to claw its way out of all this messiness. I find myself rewinding this song to certain moments where everything just seems to collapse into shit, then explode back into a sort of chaotic transcendence. Easily the most challenging track so far.

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