By Ben Sinclair
At Bottom of the Hill last Wednesday, Sept. 12, a certain Brooklyn band, sounding a bit like an alchemy of Deerhoof and Prince, provoked what I would break down into three reactions: standing around and enjoying great music (the majority of the audience), sort of dancing (a minority), and lastly, small, isolated, and poor attempts at moshing.
Not that I don’t love the stuff when everyone wants to do it, but the latter tries at this show had to kindly be swatted down. The real success of this band was that they didn’t just provoke - they affected their fans diversely. On these grounds, how could I blame a lonely and intoxicated mosher? I resigned myself to jumping around and dancing inside my own head.
For a band that has been steered towards as many varying focuses as the Dirty Projectors, their name is strikingly apropos. Back when the David Longstreth-led group was showing off their looser, folkier side, the term “rough image” described their projection all too well. As Longstreth threw in classical compositional strategies for strings and voice, the only thing that became any clearer was that the dirt on this projector was not limited to its lens: the whole machine now felt and smelled like a digitized version of some shadowy attic antique, as if the influences of its primary function were sealed in the thin sedimentary layers of dust on its exterior.
Now, with their last few releases, strings, folk, and this thing we so often call indie rock have embarked on a passionate intercourse with Malian and Congolese music. Longstreth’s unique displays of energy are now accompanied by syncopated rhythms. In fact, his newest work is his most beat-oriented yet, with stops in Chicago soul and the heart of the Caribbean on the way to Africa - though it’s certainly a round-trip affair. Recently Longstreth has been quoted as saying he’d wanted the new album to arrive, in terms of attitude, like a New York rock band. He may or may not accomplish this, but in either case he does so via Los Angeles - the city from which Black Flag hailed when they released Damaged, the hardcore punk album that Longstreth’s new lyrics and concept are firmly grounded in.
But rather than being a cover album, the Dirty Projectors’ Rise Above is a pageant of references, rearrangements, and most importantly, 100 percent new music. So new that a rather hip friend of mine was tempted to claim this music couldn’t be punk. In one sense, he cannot be wrong in saying this. In another, it’s significant to recall that punk, 30 odd years ago, was a turn towards both speed and syncopation, and away from what radio stations now deem classic rock.
The proliferation of reggae and other so-called world music, at the precise moment as punk’s own rise above older forms of rock, only seem to be unrelated if one misses that they were, and continue to be, interdependent forms. Longstreth’s band isn’t punk, but punk is sort of Longstreth’s band, so to speak. Hey, I’d prefer “inter rock,” but that’s far less marketable than indie and perhaps cornier.
Though rocking at a slower pace, the Dirty Projectors still gleam like a dewy, blossoming outgrowth high above their tumultuous roots. The facts are simply that these four musicians, onstage, have an uncanny - if not untouchable - sense of rhythm and an eccentric take on beauty.
Longstreth and guitarist Amber Coffman plucked small broken chords in tiny explosions. Their awkward yet sumptuous phrasings sparkled between Brian McComber’s warm drums. The ladies’ backup vocals were angelic. Angel Deradoorian’s bass lines floated like a magic leather ottoman. And nobody sings like David Longstreth, who reminded me at times of a young and distant David Byrne summoning Antony and the Johnsons. Hallelujah.