Magazine article The New Yorker

Yips and Riddles

Magazine article The New Yorker

Yips and Riddles

Article excerpt

In 2007, for Dirty Projectors' fifth full album, "Rise Above," the group's leader, David Longstreth, composed, from memory, a new version of "Damaged," Black Flag's 1981 album, radically altering both the lyrics and the music. "I listened to 'Damaged' a lot as a teen-ager in middle school," Longstreth told me recently. "I loved it to pieces, and then moved on. I didn't listen to it for about ten years." The Black Flag album is a series of constrained, desperate punk songs that push the emotional and physical capabilities of the band. The singer, Henry Rollins, barks about depression, cops, and other obstacles to teen-age happiness: "Thirsty and miserable, always wanting more." "Damaged" is a cry from misfits. Longstreth's "Rise Above" is a block of swirling music made to suit another kind of misfit, not necessarily an anxious one. It was helpful to be told up front that "Rise Above" was related to Black Flag's "Damaged," because it would have taken me ages to hear one album in the other.

Longstreth, who was a music major at Yale, is not interested in making things easy for his listeners, but he's not a tease. The band's latest effort, "Bitte Orca," is a coherent, meaty album that makes his language so clear that I've been able to go back and use it to translate the band's earlier work. I was drawn to "Rise Above" because of its confidence and its wild curlicues. That didn't mean that I could always find a way in. The main elements of Dirty Projectors albums were there: Longstreth's voice, which tends toward a convulsive yip; his guitar playing, which renders tricky patterns in a fluid way that doesn't blur the edges; and several female voices, hovering, sometimes in harmony, sometimes cracking a song into bits. There are echoes of various African guitar styles in Longstreth's playing, though none stick around long enough to lay a specific claim. Like Hendrix, Longstreth is a lefty who plays a right-handed Strat upside down. Despite the oddness of his songs, he plays in standard tuning.

Longstreth employs a method for arranging voices known as hocketing, which stretches back to the work of thirteenth-century French monks. To hocket, you split up a melody or a chord and assign the notes to different voices. (It's like an advanced version of those "Sesame Street" segments where Muppets individually say the syllables of a word and then combine to say the entire word together.) When voices begin to hocket (the word is related to "hiccup"), the sound starts to flicker and pop, as if the chords and melodies were multiplying like soap bubbles. (Hocketing is the mirror ball of arranging.) The effect is most striking live. There's your band, standing still, but the music is rotating all over the stage.

"Rise Above" is so dense with leaps and left turns that it can seem algebraic: something demanding your full attention, best undertaken episodically, and not for long. "Bitte Orca" distributes Longstreth's style over a flatter surface, and hands over many of the vocals to the three remarkable women in his band: the guitarist and singer Amber Coffman, the singer and keyboardist Angel Deradoorian, and the singer Haley Dekle. That may be the secret here--an entire album of Longstreth's singing is perhaps more challenging than any of his other moves. Although earlier Dirty Projectors albums are stocked with rhythm, "Bitte Orca" is the first to sound as if it had a traditional rhythm section--the fabulously heavy drummer Brian Mcomber and the bassist Nat Baldwin. …

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