Anxiety, excitement, stress, worry, relief—what is it that goes through a musician's mind on the eve of the release of an album he and his band have slaved over for months, or even years?
“It's a mixture of all those things,” confirms Dirty Projectors main man Dave Longstreth in an e-mail exchange (under doctor's orders not to speak after beginning to lose his voice in Canada while on the road with TV on the Radio).
For Longstreth, the pressure's been ratcheted up following the recent release of Dirty Projectors' fifth LP, Bitte Orca. Blogs, webzines, print and Internet radio sites aplenty have been salivating over its contents, touting the nine-track disc as “album of the year” and an artistic and commercial breakthrough of OK Computer proportions. It's a lot to live up to, and just as with the previous albums he's released since 2002, Longstreth admits that a bit of self-doubt has crept in: “You're always kind of like, ‘Is this even music?'”
He needn't worry. It's music, for sure—innovatively crafted and sonically fulfilling. Compared with past Projectors albums that relied as much on concept as sound—2005's The Getty Address, a song cycle involving Don Henley and Aztec mythology; 2007's Rise Above, a radical re-interpretation of Black Flag's 1981 debut, Damaged—Bitte Orca is simply a collection of tunes. But the way their myriad ideas and melodies bubble up to be explored, fused, dashed to the ground and then revisited in different forms makes for the band's most dazzling and profound musical statement yet.
Longstreth's singing voice—a high croon with hues of Jeff Buckley, John Lennon and Craig Wedren—isn't his greatest asset. Rather, it's his ability to appropriate, reshape and assimilate various textures into his proggy chamber-pop constructs without sounding forced or superficial. So the nimble soukous / kwassa kwassa guitar that dances throughout doesn't seem like cultural tourism (an accusation leveled at Longstreth's friend and one-time collaborator, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend). And the slinky pop / R&B groove of “Stillness is the Move”—a rejoinder to New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones' notorious 2007 essay “A Paler Shade of White,” which argued that indie-rock wasn't “black enough”—is the stuff of a true, unabashed urban-radio fan, not a trafficker in irony.
Longstreth also has at his disposal the backing vocal harmonies of singer / guitarist Amber Coffman and singer / multi-instrumentalist Angel Deradoorian (vocalist Haley Dekle, drummer Brian McOmber and bassist Nat Baldwin complete the touring sextet). Together, the “girls” (as Longstreth likes to refer to them) can drape a comforting Andrews Sisters-like coo on you or punctuate a lyric with bright authority like Bob Marley's I-Threes or Leonard Cohen's backup singers.
“A human voice is the most basic instrument, so it's always beautiful and surprising when a couple of them are all going together but doing different things,” Longstreth says of the album's many multilayered harmonies. He thought of “everyone's personalities in the band as individual instruments” when writing “Stillness is the Move” and “Two Doves” for Coffman and Deradoorian, respectively.
Incidentally, Coffman had been waiting awhile to sing. Before moving to New York, she played guitar in the San Diego band Sleeping People, a band with no vocalist and known more for a brutal instrumental-rock attack than lush harmonic layering. On “Stillness is the Move,” Coffman coos soulfully over jangled guitar chords and an electronic beat.
Almost as much R&B as it is experimental indie-rock, the song has become the album's showcase of Coffman's talent, which, until now, had only been hinted at.
Longstreth says he's aware of some of the advance gushing and even some hype-averse backlash—it would be impossible to avoid either—but he's taking everything with a huge grain of salt.
“As R. Kelly says, I'm less concerned about who's right and who's wrong than what's right and what's wrong.” This story originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix. Dirty Projectors play with Rafter on Thursday, July 9, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/dirtyprojectors.