, February 21st, 2017 11:55
What would indie guitar music sound like if it took on the futuristic production techniques of modern R&B, hip hop and pop music?
It is an intriguing question but one that few guitar acts seem interested in answering - remarkably few, in fact, given the way that R&B and hip hop have dominated contemporary pop music over the last two decades. Arctic Monkeys’ AM borrowed something of the minimal snap of modern hip hop percussion; Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City bore the recognisable pop marks of co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid; and even Coldplay’s most recent album A Head Full of Dreams suggested the band had been paying a lazy eye to what was happening in the charts.
On the whole, though, the critically-acclaimed guitar albums of the last 12 months - Savages, Angel Olsen, Parquet Courts etc - have tended to be fixated on the past, which may explain why they were crowded out at the top of most of the year-end lists by more sonically expansive records from the likes of Frank Ocean, Solange etc.
Dirty Projectors - on this record, at least, pretty much Dave Longstreth and assorted collaborators, including D∆WN RICHARD and Tyondai Braxton - have history here. Back in 2009, a year before Frank Ocean even joined Odd Future, Dirty Projectors produced ‘Stillness is The Move’, a song that skirted the fringes of R&B in a way that predated Arctic Monkeys’ AM and was later covered by Solange. The band’s 2012 album Swing Lo Magellan upped the ante, its 12 tracks run through with danceable drums and electronic effects.
It is an approach that has won DP both octopus-armfuls of bouquets and great stinking buckets of critical filth over the years. In 2009 Mimi Haddon called the band “inept and “sexless” in tQ, the same year NPR’s Will Hermes criticised Dirty Projectors for being “too eager to show off their smarts”. In 2013, meanwhile, Paul T Bradley of LA Weekly expounded his view that “eclecticism is not a substitute for quality” in a piece simply entitled ”The Dirty Projectors are Not Good”.
Such wildly divergent critical opinion is only likely to expand with the release of Dirty Projectors’ self-titled seventh album. While Swing Lo Magellan may have taken cues from modern pop and R&B, it was still notably a guitar album, albeit an adventurous one. Dirty Projectors, by contrast, sees Longstreth dive head-long and gleeful into the musical sandpit of effects, layering and sonic processing that typifies modern pop.
Take album opener ‘Keep Your Name’: it opens with the roughly time-stretched clang of church bells, which cede to moody piano chords and the alien sound of Longstreth’s pitched down voice, a discombobulating album opening akin to the shape-shifting vocal surprise that Frank Ocean pulled on Blonde’s opening track, ‘Nikes’. As ‘Keep Your Name’ progresses, Longstreth is joined by a minimal drum-machine patter, cough syrup synth chords and backing vocals that have been stretched and prodded into a ghostly chorus of support. You can, if you listen closely, hear a lonely guitar at the 1.30 mark. But it feels isolated, a bystander to the central plot.
‘Death Spiral’, which follows, goes even further, producing the most overtly pop moment on an album that is full of them. It is a song that will divide opinion, more ‘Cry Me a River’ than ‘Stillness is The Move’, with Longstreth’s voice channeling its inner Justin Timberlake as it reaches for some impressively high notes. The backing, meanwhile, is pure Timbaland, all echoing bass drum thump, beat box clatter and the sound of impatient robotic fingers drumming on the table, tied to rolling piano, clipped acoustic guitar and mortuary strings. It is a ridiculous song, overblown and extravagant, but brilliantly so in the way it cares not a fig for DP’s guitar roots.
Such futurism alone would be enough to make Dirty Projectors a remarkable release. Rubbing up against this, though, is a highly orchestrated pop sound that harks back to Smile-era Beach Boys or the baroque 60s pop of The Left Banke. That’s to say intricate, layered vocals, strings and left-field instrumentation, like the harp on ‘Little Bubble’, a song that introduces the Beach Boys’ psychedelic barbershop quartet to the robotic burble of Auto-tune.
This mix comes to a head on the stunning ‘Ascent Through Clouds’, seven unlikely minutes of neo-Prog two step (TM) that features vertiginous string arrangements, a lolling mid section that brings to mind Jack Ü’s ‘Where Are Ü Now' and a distorted four four beat that is straight out of a Berlin dungeon. That this all hangs together is tribute to Longstreth’s jigsaw-puzzle-solving skill as a pop arranger.
People who hate Dirty Projectors will find ample grist for their mill here. Dirty Projectors is an album that seems wilfully eclectic, picking from the table of modern pop at greedy will; it ventures into territory generally best left untested by guitar bands from Brooklyn; and it is a “clever” album, constructed in a way that some people will surely see as too knowing or arch.
And yet the strongest argument against this lies in the sheer emotional heft of the songs found on Dirty Projectors. The music here may be cleverly assembled but this never comes at the expense of raw emotion. This is a break-up record and it shows, none more so than on the open-hearted tale of love and separation that is ‘Up in Hudson’, a track that relates Longstreth’s courting of, relationship with and subsequent split from (former?) band mate Amber Coffman over somber Dixieland jazz chords.
Not only are the songs here strong enough to support such extreme sonic fiddling, they seem to demand it. This, Dirty Projectors is saying, is what a break up album sounds like in the adventurous pop landscape of the mid 2010s. This is how a spectrum of effects can enhance the emotional mood rather than mask it; the pitched-down vocals on ‘Keep Your Name’, say, coming across as bruised, broken and confused in both execution and melody.
In such an electric smorgasbord of an album it is inevitable that not everything will pan out. ’Work Together’ is irritating, marrying a messy smudge of electronics to a melody that isn’t one of the album’s best, and the brilliance of D∆WN RICHARD’s vocal on ‘Cool Your Heart’ would benefit from a remix that tones down the musical fussiness several notches. But these are isolated incidents and, even at its worst, Dirty Projectors is an interesting album, one that dares to engage with wonders of the modern pop landscape rather than stick its head in the ground and pray for 1978.
At its best, meanwhile, Dirty Projectors is a masterful release, packed to the hilt with emotion, melody and fascinating sonic quirks, an album that recalls the glitchy soul of Blonde, the drum machine melancholy of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak and the wide-eyed pop experimentalism of Smile. if you squint a little you could even draw a line to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica in the way Dirty Projectors bins the guitars in favour of bending modern musical trends to its particular will. Dirty Projectors is not quite that good - few records are - but it certainly drives a stake into the ground as to what guitar bands could deliver in 2017 if they would only open their ears and minds up a little.