David Longstreth, Dirty Projectors’ young bandleader, is not unduly anxious about the weight of influence. The singer and guitarist, who briefly studied composition at Yale, has enthused about Cyndi Lauper and Gustav Mahler, and his band’s four previous albums include what may be called a folk opera about Eagles frontman Don Henley (The Getty Address, 2005), and a song-by-song reimagining of Damaged, Black Flag’s 1981 hardcore classic (their most recent, Rise Above, 2007). Longstreth claimed that the latter project was a self-conscious shot at a quintessential New York album: ‘angular, austere, obsessed with authenticity, like New York bands supposedly are.’ The conceit was a ruse; played from memory, Rise Above bore scant resemblance to its original, mis-remembering Black Flag’s violently anti-authoritarian outbursts as clattering, sweetly scored love songs.
This kind of obtuse approach sets Dirty Projectors aside from a number of their New York-based contemporaries who are using a similar set of musical ingredients – that is, afro-pop guitar picking, polyrhythms and tempo changes that manage to seem both tightly rehearsed and a total surprise to most of the band. (A studiedly polished version of the sound can be found on last year’s eponymous debut by Vampire Weekend, whose lead singer Ezra Koenig was an early member of Dirty Projectors’ revolving line-up.) Also extraordinary is Longstreth’s voice, which often dips between melisma, falsetto and a low croon in a complicated set of call-and-response vocals with guitarist Amber Coffman and bassist Angel Deradoorian (whose solo EP, Mind Raft, was released this year). If there has been a problem with this ambitious approach, it has been that Dirty Projectors are sometimes easier to admire than to love, crowbarring too much dissonance or rhythmic trickery into a single song. Not so with Bitte Orca (a title selected for its curious allure rather than because of an arch reference), their most accomplished record to date; a complex and complete album rather than a suite of in-jokes. Its sunny sophistication suggests that Longstreth wasn’t joking when he recently mentioned he’s been listening to a lot of Beyoncé; the cluttered looseness of earlier arrangements has been tightened into nine glimmering, startlingly direct songs unconnected by theme.
Longstreth is perhaps more confident than before with his band, which has remained – for the first time – largely unchanged on consecutive albums. He relinquishes vocal duties on two songs: the jolting R&B of lead single ‘Stillness is the Move’, on which Coffman sings, and ‘Two Doves’, sung by Deradoorian, an uncredited homage to Nico’s 1967 song ‘These Days’ which borrows a line (‘Don’t confront me with my failures’) and warms up John Cale’s original string arrangements. Elsewhere, as on ‘Temecula Sunrise’, the lyrics are gratifyingly artless, concerned with growing a little older, and worrying about moving in with someone. Two occasional band members have been added to the line-up, and the sound has broadened a little: subtly vocodered twists and synths occasionally added to the threading, modal guitar lines (as on stand-out ‘Useless Chamber’). In the past Dirty Projectors’ music has seemed uncommonly elusive and haltingly allusive: it claimed to sound like one thing, tried to sound like another, though was really something else entirely. It feels odd to commend a band for not doing what they set out to do, but the precocious striving of Dirty Projectors’ previous four albums resulted in a ragbag of beautiful failures. Bitte Orca is both assured and remarkably sincere, and closes this gap between intention and realization.