Live Review, 7/27/12: Dirty Projectors Churn Out Focused Chaos at the Fox Theater
Jeff Goodwin Dirty Projectors at the Fox Theater on Friday night.
Friday, July 27 2012
The Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: Pretty much all other paradox-driven art-indie experimental post-rock you could come up with. Go ahead, try.
If a live performance by Dirty Projectors sounds frenzied and disorganized -- if the cooing harmonies and fuzz-chafed guitars seem bent on overpowering each other -- don't worry; it's not because there's any actual chaos going on. Rather, it's because this juxtaposition of bedlam and grace is absolutely essential to the band's sound. Like a model's tousled bedhead or a pair of strategically tattered jeans, a Dirty Projectors show is painstakingly shaped, then presented as an unpracticed and spontaneous event. It is, of course, anything but.
The beating, bleating heart of this illusion is frontman David Longstreth, whose compositional brilliance is offset by his jangly guitar work, abstract rhythmic sensibilities, and downright shocking physical resemblance to a velociraptor on the prowl. Tonight, Longstreth's vocals are by turns sweet, mournful, tortured and ferocious. Not once, however, are they anything less than pitch-perfect. Though this is hardly surprising (Dirty Projectors are rumored to engage in some of the most grueling rehearsals in the world of indie rock), it does re-pose an age-old question: How hard must musicians work in order to appear as though they've ceded control of their art?
Onstage, Longstreth demonstrates a knack for oscillating between many disparate emotions; he is the very embodiment of Dirty Projectors' order/disorder turmoil. When he opens the set with "Swing Lo Magellan," it's all grins and whimsy. But as the band launches into "See What She Seeing," the third song of its set, he puts down his guitar and wanders around the stage, almost quizzical. "I need someone to comfort me," he confesses, and we believe him.
Behind Longstreth are bassist Nat Baldwin and drummer Michael Johnson, whose primary responsibility seems to be yanking the bandleader's flights of convulsive guitar noise back down to Earth and hammering them into something resembling a normally-structured pop song. They are both excellent at this, and give off the impression of having backgrounds in classical music, and are overall just pretty impossible to ignore.
Still, it's primarily the band's female vocalists -- Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle, and newcomer Olga Bell -- who command the most attention. "Beautiful Mother," a song from the band's 2011 Mount Wittenberg Orca EP, features a dizzying assault of vocal acrobatics from Coffman and Dekle; their voices bounce around like angrily hurled rubber balls, then merge into a deafening crescendo. Each time they execute this feat (effortlessly, as one might expect), the audience erupts.
Coffman is equally commanding on "The Socialites," a hiccupping interrogation of social ascendancy. With a yowling string arrangement behind her, she marches from one end of the stage to the other, sarcastically voicing her desire to gain acceptance by "[combing] my hair in a thousand ways."
The open secret about Dirty Projectors -- and Longstreth in particular -- is that they are sometimes ambitious to a fault. Rise Above, released in 2007, was a brilliant but messy effort to re-imagine an entire Black Flag album from memory; Mount Wittenberg Orca was a concept album in which Bjork voiced the part of a mother whale teaching her babies various life lessons. On Swing Lo Magellan, Longstreth made a conscious attempt to strip down his songs and make them more rhythmically driven. This serves the band especially well in a live setting -- especially on drum-heavy tracks like "Unto Caesar" and "Gun Has No Trigger."
As the set nears its conclusion, glimmers of something resembling dramatic resolution start to appear. "Dance For You," despite its themes of uncertainty, is an upbeat jaunt; "Stillness Is The Move" remains ever the crowd-pleaser. Paradoxically, "Impregnable Question," the final song of the evening, ends with perhaps the most un-ambiguous refrain in the band's catalog: "I need you, and I want you in my life."
As the band jogs offstage, that appears to be the one thing everyone at the Fox can agree on.
Sentences (and fragments thereof), pertaining to this reporter's very strong attraction to Dirty Projectors' female members, that said reporter thought better of including in the above review:
- "Slightly uncomfortable without a guitar slung around her, Coffman tends to wander around the stage, perhaps in search of answers, or an SF Weekly correspondent, or both."
- "Dekle, whose microphone is set up approximately one desperately shrieked marriage proposal's distance from this reporter's vantage point..."
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