Dirty Projectors / Tune Yards

Dirty Projectors / Tune Yards

Dirty Projectors / Tune Yards

Listening to the Dirty Projectors has the effect of having your entire record collection flash before your eyes. The Brooklyn band’s music is a patchwork of many kinds: Motown, punk rock, West African music, even Dutch minimalism. These elements are not so much mixed as they are layered and juxtaposed, each retaining its distinguishing features. The selection of materials is so thoughtful, and their combination so intelligent that it trancends pastiche and becomes something truly original and thrilling.

The support act foreshadowed this catholic approach. Tune Yards is the one woman band of Merrill Garbus from Montreal (a bass player accompanied her for some of the time, but actually seemed unnecessary). Garbus appears seated, wearing a zebra-patterned shirt and a ukelele on her lap. She is surrounded by loop pedals, pieces of a drum kit and her face is striped with war paint—from the moment she begins singing, the impression is of a displaced witch doctor channelling Aretha Franklin. And there is something of a manic ritual to her songs: most often they are constructed from loops of lo-fi drum samples, fast ukelele tunes and energetic, almost wordless singing, which gradually gathers ecstatic intensity. Garbus sings, ‘Do you want to live? Yeah!’ and it tells us exactly what this music is about.

The Dirty Projectors entered quietly, opening with only two of its members on stage. ‘Two Doves’ is a slow ballad sung by Angel Deradoorian and accompanied by the band’s songwriter and musical director David Longstreth on guitar. Deradoorian’s sultry, unadorned alto, sings ‘Pour your love better than wine’ and it’s a reminder that, whatever their complexity, Dirty Projectors songs are never purely intellectual.

But there is intellectual rigour to their songs, and they are often complex and virtuosic. At this end of the spectrum are songs like ‘Stillness is the Move’, which opens with Longstreth’s peculiar guitar sound: clean, finger-picked, close to the bridge, with long erratically-shaped phrases, a little in the vein of the Malian guitarist Habib Koité, only more unpredicatable. Watching Longstreth play adds to its peculiarity: he plays an upside-down, left-handed Stratocaster, and his fingers dart across the strings as if he is holding the instrument for the first time. The singing of Amber Coffman drives this song, childlike and declamatory, with harmonies from Deradoorian and a guest singer. It is an example of how the Dirty Projectors’ voices are worked hard, covering a wide range and many kinds of tone. When Longstreth rings a warm guitar chord, Coffmann slips into a soulful, emotive voice, pleading, ‘Isn’t life under the sun just a crazy dream?’

It is as if Longstreth imagines the voices to be instruments like any other, pliable and unrestricted: in ‘Remade Horizon’, Coffman and Deradoorian hockett a rising and falling pattern of notes at break-neck speed and the effect is of an analogue synthesiser. (It’s so convincing that I spent most of this song scanning the stage for the invisible instrument.) And though the bass and drums are almost always present, it is the voices that give the songs forward momentum. Longstreth’s voice, too, is versatile, quivering above the texture, a melodious and expressive tenor. His head cocked to one side, Longstreth reaches around the words, annunciating them so vaguely that they are almost unrecognisable. It is as if, in a music where no syncopation, influence or counterpoint is out of place, Longstreth still wants to keep something undefined.

Published on 1 December 2009

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly is a composer and a director of Ergodos, a production company and record label. schlepperconnolly.com

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