Live review: Dirty Projectors at the Troubadour
In "The Odyssey," the alluring harmonies of the Sirens would seduce passing sailors to their doom. During the Dirty Projectors' deeply strange and often riveting Troubadour set Wednesday night, the band's three female singers had an opposite effect. Just as a song would threaten to go off the rails in a flurry of West African guitar riffs and fidgety drumming, Projectors' vocalists Angel Deradoorian, Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle would lock into a chord or a call-and-response that would bring the tune back to a safer place.
Not an easy place, necessarily. The band's byzantine, inside-out arrangements of guitar, voice and rhythms didn't always translate. But every song had at least one moment when the Projectors' deconstruction of pop, R&B, noise and choral music was a visceral pleasure unlike anything else in recent music.
First, it must be said that whatever kind of a ship David Longstreth runs during those days-long practices, the commitment is plainly, mind-breakingly evident live. I haven't heard arrangements that involved and precisely performed outside of Disney Hall, and it's probably only a matter of time before Longstreth and Nico Muhly team up for an Afro-pop "Ring" cycle or something. But the Projectors' traditions are also wholly contemporary -- it's clear they're as versed in T-Pain and D'Angelo as they are in Thomas Tallis. "Stillness Is the Move," the slinky first single from their newest and best album, "Bitte Orca," comes across as kind of deadpan and glassy on record, but live it felt like a completely earnest (and worthy) hat tip to the slow-jam party pop of Keri Hilson and Mariah Carey, albeit through a fractal of Brooklyn weirdo. The title track of "Rise Above," their wholesale demolition of Black Flag's "Damaged," completely inverted the power dynamic of the seminal hard-core band's angry clarion call; the airy falsettos made one feel like they'd already risen over pretty much everything.
While plenty of artists use Auto-Tune and the like to disembody their voices, the Projectors do it through sheer force of will and the elasticity of their singing. Instead of obvious tricks such as melisma, their notes stutter, flit and dart around in a way that sounds electronically filtered but isn't. Longstreth's voice is an odd, malleable thing in itself, but it's clear that his great mission in the band is deploying harmonies to a bigger effect. The pinprick arpeggios of "Remade Horizon" came in an almost inhuman barrage, but soon gave way to one of rock's most base lyrical instincts, repeating "Yeah, I want to" over and again.
That's where the Projectors' real power lies. It's really tempting to chalk up much of what they do as just a worthy intellectual exercise, and their earlier concept-based albums probably warranted that take. But the thing with "difficult" music is that it's sometimes not about the legwork of unpacking it -- feeling misdirected is an emotion in itself, and makes the moments when the clouds part all the more revelatory. Dirty Projectors can probably do anything -- even though they often take a deliriously roundabout way to arrive at the old tricks of pop music (moving bodies, spinning heads), it's twice as shocking and rewarding when they get there.
-- August Brown
Photo by Sarah Cass