Artist: Dirty Projectors
Album: Swing Lo Magellan
“Experimental” is not a dirty word. The fundamentals of great experimentation are a sure knowledge of what has preceded the new creation, and a passionate desire to play with the limits and boundaries of what is known and comfortable. Even if the experiment fails to do what it set out to perform, the results are often compelling at best, and mildly interesting at worst. Unfortunately all too often we are greeted with lazy artists who create something and, failing to easily define what they’ve made, dub it an “experiment” and inflict it upon others without any real passion or love for what they created. In this circumstance the real experiment is a social one – an impromptu Emperor’s New Clothes scenario where appreciation for the artist conflicts with the lackluster product the poor victim has been subjected to, but is expected to praise.
Fortunately Swing Lo Magellan by indie rock band Dirty Projectors is experimental in the good sense of the word. While not always satisfying emotionally or intellectually, the album is a worthwhile experience, and rootling through the rhythms, vocals, and psychedelic influences on it make for an enjoyable pause over your hot beverage of choice.
The star of the album is the title song, where drums and guitar meet with David Longstreth’s gorgeous vocals. His voice trails to high ranges seamlessly – but unexpectedly – with meandering lyrics that create tone without too much specificity. There’s a simplicity to this song, a folksy 1960s hint of the past that blushes becomingly at the surface. Interestingly enough, none of the remaining songs on Swing Lo Magellan feel quite like this entry, although they retain certain shared aspects. “Impregnable Question” is perhaps the song most outwardly similar to “Swing Lo Magellan” – retaining the retro folk rock feel with piano and tambourine underscoring its influences. Here too simplicity is key, the lyric “you’re my love and I want you in my life” as direct as the music itself.
But many of the songs on the album are eclectic, and despite sharing the same vocalists often seem as if they originated from different albums altogether. “Just From Chevron” – a song with a fairly obvious environmental message – features controlled clapping and guitar that explodes into a psychedelic interlude before neatly returning to its previous state. When Longstreth screams at certain points in the song the sound is suppressed, rigid with emotional restraint. “Maybe That Was It” alternates its rhythms in a regular way, the psychedelic intro of electric guitar, bass, and drums mellowing into a lilting and slow venture. Alternately “Gun Has No Trigger” has a distinctly 90s feel with its regular drums and female back up vocals ooh-ing to a progressively sharp folk crescendo, while “The Socialites” – the only song on the album where a female vocalist is foregrounded – contains a terse, tense electric rhythm punctuated by distortion that sounds vaguely like cat yowls.
We can never rediscover the true weirdness of the 1960s psychedelic movements without abandoning our own prohibitive – and inhibitive – self-awareness. There are no guttural intonations here, no untoward surprises; ultimately self-editing prevents the songs from becoming sublime. But the experiments here seem like a worthy exploration of uniting that inhibitive awareness with wildness, and when they succeed, are indeed dressing the band properly in shiny new clothes and not leaving them naked.