Available on: Domino Records
Dirty Projectors adapt and evolve with each new project and configuration. The only constants across their nearly decade long adventure emanate from frontman Dave Longstreth: his quivering voice, virtuosic (but not showy) guitar work, and restless energy. These attributes imbue each album with a sound that is distinct to the band but simultaneously uninterested with the projects before it. How else can one describe a band that releases a “glitch opera” about Don Henley (2005’s The Getty Address) and then reconstructs Black Flag from memory (2007’s Rise Above)? The Dirty Projectors’ catalog is indie rock’s Island of Misfit Toys.
Swing Lo Magellan is more a collection of songs than a high-concept meditation. It moves on from the carefully constructed chaos of 2009’s Bitte Orca, an album where the pieces of each song seemed to exist separately until improbably coming together in a eureka moment. Still, the two albums sit nicely next to each other on the shelf.
The result of twelve months of recording in upstate New York, Swing Lo (as is often the case with Projectors albums) sees the band’s lineup undergo some changes. Michael Johnson takes over on drums, and more significantly, vocalist/keyboardist Angel Deradoorian is on hiatus from the band. This might explain why the female vocals that featured so heavily on Bitte Orca, most notably on the standout ‘Stillness is the Move’, have mostly been reduced to complementary, doo wop harmonies. One exception is ‘Just From Chevron,’ which allows Amber Coffman to shine before shifting focus back to Longstreth.
Lead single ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ presents a false promise of violence, as the title suggests. A walking bass line and cooing background vocals propel each verse, while each chorus threatens to explode into something more, but is fittingly restrained. It’s a denial of the expected that appears across the album. Many of these songs, in fact, revolve around some contemporary key in the foreground and are counterbalanced by classic songwriting in the background. Swing Lo Magellan opens with ‘Offspring are Blank,’ which sways with sub-bass but features surprisingly muscular riffs and a stadium rock crescendo. The colliding, syncopated percussion of ‘About to Die’ gives way to a major key melody that finds Longstreth wailing like Ted Leo. ‘Dance for You’ starts as a bit of psychedelic pop, pulls back the curtain on an orchestral breakdown, and returns to greener pastures.
On occasion, the tracks are stripped down even further, to their most basic components. The title track sounds like Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday Morning’ if it were a fingerpicked folk song; ‘Impregnable Question’ is the folky outlier on the album’s second half.
It is the second half of Swing Lo Magellan that most resembles Bitte Orca. ‘See What She Seeing’ and ‘The Socialites’ both run on galloping percussion and elastic keys that are countered by the sweetness of a string melody and Coffman’s vocals, respectively. Even here, however, the detuned, psychedelic jam ‘Maybe That Was It’ seems out of place.
Swing Lo Magellan features some of the Dirty Projectors’ most straightforward pop songs to date. Still, the tension between classic cues and experimentation prevents the album from reaching its potential as the pop realization of Dirty Projectors. As Longstreth sings on ‘Dance for You,’ “There is an answer / I haven’t found it / But I will keep dancing till I do.” That’s not just a chorus – it’s his modus operandi.