Halfway into the Dirty Projectors’ set at the Metro Gallery in Baltimore last month, Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle, two of the group’s female vocalists, delivered a feat of vocal interplay not often heard or attempted in pop music. The tune was “Remade Horizon,” and at first it was unclear whether the sound emanating from the stage was coming from the vocalists or some unidentified electronic instrument. But midway through the song all doubt was erased when a solo Ms. Coffman intoned her half of what turned out to be an extremely slick hocket. And when Ms. Dekle joined in to create the swirling composite line, my jaw dropped. Though I can’t be certain, I think one of the girls on stage caught me standing there motionless, my mouth agape at what I had just witnessed.
Dirty Projectors is the brainchild of 27-year-old Brooklynite David Longstreth, a guy with solid arranging chops, idiosyncratic melodic tendencies, and a knack for linking genres together so well that you barely notice the seams in this deft mashup of influences. The result is a fresh and surprisingly diverse indie outfit that sounds at home whether they’re holding down an easygoing groove with R&B-influenced hand claps on 2 and 4, blending fingerpicked guitar with a string quartet, or exploring the boundaries of form and noise like an experimental improvisation bubbling over at its peak.
Being adept stylistic cobblers is one thing, but it’s not the only card the Dirty Projectors have to play, a fact they demonstrate with remarkable vitality on their latest release, Bitte Orca.
While the forms used by the Dirty Projectors might be described as conventional, their approach and delivery is anything but formulaic. Each tune reveals a new layer of cleverness with regard to arranging and experimentation with timbres and textures. Subtly emblematic of the group’s capabilities is the chorus of “No Intention,” which features Longstreth crooning over one of the disc’s many stellar vocal arrangements and an inventive bass line that reveals a more sophisticated level of harmonic intelligence than is generally displayed by your garden-variety root-thumping bass player.
That this is packaged up inside a track that sounds positively carefree is one of the Dirty Projectors’ unique abilities. Also among the group’s distinct sonic characteristics is their approach to texture and timbre. “Useful Chamber,” the disc’s most ambitious track, comes on like you’ve just stumbled into a tranced-out dance party. A smooth synth line glides over a punchy bass line before female backing vocals emerge from the steely texture.
Perhaps the most striking part of the Dirty Projectors’ sound comes courtesy of the group’s three female vocalists, Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle. Their indispensable presence is felt immediately following Longstreth’s very first phrase in “Cannibal Resource,” the album’s opening track, in the form of tight and inventive three-part harmonies.
Elsewhere, in tunes like “Fluorescent Half Dome” and “Useful Chamber,” their abrupt shifts in timbre add significant depth to the Projectors’ already colorful palate. They’re actually so much a part of the group’s sonic DNA that in some of the album’s barest vocal moments their absence is noticed.
Given their prominence, it’s not surprising that two of the album’s standout tracks are actually tunes in which frontman Longstreth doesn’t open his mouth. In yet another stunning display of the Dirty Projectors’ range, Amber Coffman releases her inner Mariah Carey on the funky and soulful “Stillness is the Move,” while Angel Deradoorian delivers a wonderfully subdued performance on “Two Doves,” by far the disc’s most straight-ahead tune. And considering the intricacies of the rest of the album, the simplicity of Deradoorian’s soothing alto over a fingerpicked acoustic guitar and velvety string quartet arrangement is pure beauty.
Read any review of the Dirty Projectors and you’re likely to find some mention of the group’s technical acumen. That this jumps out at people is not surprising considering that Longstreth has a music degree from Yale. And while they’re not exactly the hipster answer to King Crimson, Dirty Projectors are creating music that tests the boundaries of what you’d expect from a group that gets filed under “indie rock.” What is particularly compelling is their ability to fold some more cerebral musical details—a degree of nerdiness, if you will—into more conventional rock forms while still engaging a broader audience and appealing to both sets of listeners. It’s a fine line to walk and a secret that more than a few would probably pay to have. There are layers to the Dirty Projectors’ music, and it can be experienced and enjoyed at whatever layer you feel like peeling back to.
Though perfection assumes many forms on Bitte Orca, the disc is far from flawless, at least technically speaking. A tempo ebbs and flows here and there. Harmonies don’t completely lock in at times. Vocal cutoffs are rarely exactly together. But these inconsistencies don’t detract at all from the album’s overall effect. Actually, these “blemishes” serve to push aside the idea that technique might be one of the group’s primary MOs. As a consequence, you’re left with the impression that for the Dirty Projectors, it’s all about doing it for the love of the music and not the sound of wonderful technique. Isn’t that refreshing?