I’ll admit when I first listened to “Swing Lo Magellan” that I was disappointed. While I could hear the effort that Dave Longstreth, the frontman and main vocalist, and the others had put into the album, I just didn’t find it enjoyable. The melodies didn’t seem coherent enough: maybe it was that I had become too used to the commercially-produced, predictable tunes of today, but the album simply didn’t feel accessible.
But let me clarify: “Swing Lo Magellen” is the newest album from the extremely indie band, The Dirty Projectors. If you’ve heard of them at all, you’ve heard their song “The Stillness is the Move,” from their album “Bitte Orca,” which highlighted the vocals of the female members, Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle, and Angel Deradoorian. And if you’ve heard of them, it’s because you have hipster tendencies (it’s better for you if you admit that now).
But I don’t want to dismiss the Dirty Projectors as just “indie,” which carries negative connotations now, even though their music is hard to categorize within any other genre. Their lyrics have gotten a lot more understandable and relatable and they do perform, to some extent, like a typical band: guitar, drums, vocals, no ukelele. And, they don’t depend on computer arrangements. All the music I heard during their show this past Monday at the Pearl Street Ballroom in Northhampton was performed right then and there. Of course, this immediately and totally converted any misgivings I’d had about the band into awe.
Interestingly enough, however, I feel like a capella fans would enjoy the Dirty Projectors, and possibly appreciate their music more than I. Longstreth, who focuses a lot of his musical energy on the possibilities offered by harmonization, often creates these intricate harmonies that sound standard on my computer but were beautiful live. Despite the noise from the crowd and drums, all of the vocalists were perfectly in tune. Their range and Longstreth’s power were particularly commendable — one assumes now, in the age of Autotune, that those difficult melodies and runs were simply edited to sound perfect. Not so: perhaps because of the intensive harmonies, but everyone really could perform exactly the vocal and instrumental moves one finds on the album.
And boy, weird can be off-putting when it sits in your iTunes library, but when it’s performed five feet in front of your face, you appreciate that talent. At one point, Coffman, Dekle and Bell wail quickly and successively (I think that’s the way to describe it) and everybody in the audience was envious of the vocal precision it required. Gimmicky-sounding tricks, like the clapping in “Just From Chevron” are good ways in a live show to participate with the band, especially when their songs are so hard to sing along to.
My favorite, however, was Mike Johnson, the drummer, whose enthusiasm won me over almost immediately. It didn’t hurt that Nat Baldwin, the bassist, was obviously making sure to carefully synchronize his music with Johnson. The energy of the band and the crowd drew on each other like symbiotic organisms, which explains why Longstretch doesn’t have much of a stage persona. He doesn’t need one. The crowd wasn’t too big and had obviously done their research — everybody knew the songs and there was something intimate about being in a group of strangers who could all enjoy the same unorthodox music.
We all sang along to the last song, “Impregnable Question,” which I think could actually be a nice introduction to the band to those who haven’t heard of the Dirty Projectors before. It’s a soft, sweet love song with a simple message: “you’re my love, and I want you in my life.” Putting all of Longstreth’s experimentation aside, at the heart of his music is something everybody can relate to.