While 2009 certainly wasn’t the best year for music, it did produce some great music. For every Animal Collective, there was a Pains of Being Pure at Heart. For every Grizzly Bear, there was a Lily Allen. Somewhere in the middle was Dirty Projectors, whose “Bitte Orca” rode the line between over-praised and intriguing.
“Bitte Orca” was an interesting album because, before its release, Dirty Projectors had been one of the most pretentious bands of the century, which is saying a lot. The funniest example of this is “Rise Above,” the group’s fourth studio album. It was conceived when the band’s lead singer, David Longstreth, realized he hadn’t listened to Black Flag’s “Damaged” in almost 15 years. Most people would respond to this realization by listening to the album (if you haven’t heard “Damaged,” put this article down and go listen to it), but Longstreth had a different response: He covered the album, track by track, from memory.
Dirty Projectors were just that kind of band—bizarre, artsy, experimental and not very enjoyable. Then, they released “Bitte Orca.” It wasn’t extraordinary, but it showed them heading in a more pop-like direction, and it was far more listenable than their previous work. Watching an indie band become progressively more pop can be fascinating, and that goes double for Dirty Projectors, whose transition was so spontaneous it was the most truly experimental thing they could have done.
Earlier this year, the band released “Swing Lo Magellan.” It continues the transition to pop that “Bitte Orca” started, but that doesn’t mean Dirty Projectors have thrown away their love of the bizarre. The opening track, “Offspring Are Blank,” begins with an intro that should be off-putting, even to hipsters. Then, about a minute and a half into the song, it jumps into a pop chorus, catchier than anything on the group’s earlier albums. On subsequent listens, knowledge of what it leads to makes the song’s intro more bearable.
Even at its most experimental, “Swing Lo Magellan” rarely turns pretentious. It’s too cute to try to be smart and too charming to try to be cool. It’s an anti-hipster record because it takes away your right to feel superior to others while listening to it. If somebody listens to “Swing Lo Magellan” and, by the end, still thinks they’re cool for doing so, they haven’t fully engulfed themselves into the music.
The album’s charm is best seen on the title track and “Dance for You,” two softer songs with the kind of melodies Longstreth never seemed to have in him. The lyrics to “Swing Lo Magellan” are almost impossible to interpret and not very significant, but that doesn’t matter due to the fullness of the sound. “Dance for You” has much better lyrics (“There is an answer/I haven’t found it/But I will keep dancing till I do.”) and stands alongside Jens Lekman’s “I Know What Love Isn’t” and Chairlift’s “I Belong in Your Arms” as one of the most gorgeous indie songs of the year.
The quiet moments on “Swing Lo Magellan” stand out, but there are many moments where Dirty Projectors let loose. “About to Die” and “Gun Has No Trigger” are straight up intense, while “Unto Caesar” could practically be diagnosed with ADHD due to its refusal to sit still. While the softer songs are defined by melodies and guitar lines, the louder moments are defined by the percussion. Brian McOmber, the group’s drummer until Michael Johnson replaced him in June, offers some memorable drum parts, highlighted not only by standard drum kit equipment, but also by handclaps and snapping. Sometimes, vocals are even used in a percussive manner.
While Dirty Projectors have always mixed songs sung by Longstreth with songs sung by the women in the band, the girls are finally used to their full potential on this record. On “Just From Chevron,” Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle give one of their best harmony performances, and “The Socialites” features Coffman singing solo (although, for some reason, I can’t stop thinking of “The First Noel” while listening to it).
Most songs on “Swing Lo Magellan” are good, but not every track is solid. “Just From Chevron” becomes forgettable after the harmonic opening, while “Maybe That Was It” is just unpleasant. The final track, “Irresponsible Tune,” has a 1950s sound, but doesn’t do much with it.
Beyond its flaws, “Swing Lo Magellan” is a sonically delightful and, at times, uplifting record. It shows how much potential there is for other indie bands to record magnificent pop albums. Not only is it the best album Dirty Projectors has produced, it’s also one of the best indie-pop albums of the year.
Key Tracks: “Dance for You,” “Swing Lo Magellan,” “See What She’s Seeing” and “Gun Has No Trigger.”