The Guide to Getting into Dirty Projectors
Led by Dave Longstreth, the band has had a revolving door of collaborators across eight albums. Here are five starting points before you dive into 'Lamp Lit Prose.'
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For a while, Dirty Projectors were a Brooklyn daydream. What started as the dorm room project of eventual Yale dropout Dave Longstreth eventually morphed into a six-piece band leading the Williamsburg brigade with Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, and TV On the Radio right beside them. Of these groups, Longstreth’s was the most audacious, the most actively experimental—spawning from the principal songwriter’s early days as a music major focusing in on classical music.
Dirty Projectors started as a Longstreth solo project, the DIY wanderings of a folk-leaning collagist, pulling parts from every genre imaginable and pasting them beneath his warbly, nervous voice. When he got to Brooklyn, he lived with the dudes from Vampire Weekend and began to play with them, as well as current Dirty Projectors bassists Nat Baldwin and a few collaborators who would come and go. By the time Longstreth was gearing up to record Rise Above, his re-imaging (from memory) of Black Flag’s music, he recruited Amber Coffman to join the band, in addition to drummer Brian McOmber. To tour that record, Angel Deradoorian hopped aboard, and what was once the wild, unhinged musings of a man with endless talent, became one of the most exciting bands in the world.
What we never realized, though, was that Dirty Projectors always was and always would be Longstreth’s band. The group has rotated around him, and he’s bent its various members to his indomitable and at times overbearing will. When he and Coffman broke up sometime after the release of 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan, that was it for the band. Longstreth disappeared for five years, only to re-emerge with a solo record that revealed uncomfortable details about his feelings towards Coffman. It was aggressively honest at best, vengeful at worst (“What I want from art is truth/What you want is fame”), and its not quite coherent sound resulted in Longstreth’s weakest effort since Dirty Projectors became a band.
After a long gap of half a decade between Swing Lo Magellan and Longstreth’s 2017 solo release, he’s returned again, just a year later, this time with a full band, to release Lamp Lit Prose. Bassist Nat Baldwin has returned to the group, as has drummer Mike Johnson, but the women who arguably helped Longstreth pioneer the sound his band’s most known for, its harmonies, have been replaced. Now singing for the group are Felicia Douglass, Maia Friedman, and Kristin Slipp. Throughout Longstreth’s fifteen year career as Dirty Projectors, it’s become clear that we works best when he has musicians to write for. With a new band in tow, Lamp Lit Prose is a return to form. Now living in LA, Longstreth is a far cry from the musician who surprisingly sprung the enthralling Bitte Orca onto an already saturated Brooklyn scene. But now he’s back with a new army of ultra-talented musicians to write wonderfully colorful songs for. Some things never change.
So You Want To Get Into: Rock Your Face Off Dirty Projectors
This is the best iteration of Dirty Projectors because Longstreth’s long-winded meanderings get sliced to their most concise declarations, featuring monstrous drums, jittery bass, and guitar lines that jump from point A to point Q without considering such a leap audacious or even out of the ordinary. When Longstreth’s compositions are vaulting out of your speakers, it’s because of the drums. His drummers have cycled from Adam Forkner to Brian McOmber to his current drummer, Mike Johnson. The sweet spot of this era lands between 2007 and 2009, when Longstreth surrounded himself with a full band, creating the most cohesive version of Dirty Projectors—able to accurately and precisely convey Longstreth’s wildest ramblings without ever having to reign them in.
For the most part, McOmber is at the center of Dirty Projectors’ most high-flying moments, with drum parts that explode like cannons and shake the grave of John Bonham. This intricate yet ruthlessly efficient style, is most readily available on arguably the band’s two best records, 2007’s Rise Above and 2009’s Bitte Orca. The former, a reimagining of Black Flag’s work, and the latter a stunning breakout that recalibrated every previously held conception of Longstreth’s project. Longstreth works best when there’s a room full of people to bounce ideas off of, and these records are the most fleshed out of the band’s catalog. It’s on these two albums that Longstreth’s voice is the most carefree and wild; less an art project than a yelp that tries to transcend space and time. He doesn’t get there (no one ever does), but Longstreth’s best attribute has always been his unrelenting ambition.
While post-Bitte Orca, Longstreth led his rotating cast of players in all sorts of directions, this three year period in which the Dirty Projectors mastermind reimagined Led Zeppelin as an afropop band and Black Flag as an avant-garde take on the Velvet Underground was the band’s most exhilarating, because they truly were a band.
That trend continues on Lamp Lit Prose, as Longstreth once again surrounds himself with ol’ reliable Nat Baldwin and Mike Johnson on drums. This rhythm section busts some heads on “I Found it in U,” a shifting, crunchy rock tour de force, hopelessly uncomfortable in its groove but still somehow able to establish a head-nodding sway for Longstreth’s chorus, where he ecstatically sings “I have found it in you.” The guitars are loud, the drums slap, and Baldwin’s just hanging back there, making intricacies sound like child’s play.
Playlist: “What I See” (Rise Above), “Thirsty and Miserable” (Rise Above), “Spray Paint (the Walls)” (Rise Above), “Cannibal Resource” (Bitte Orca), “Useful Chamber” (Bitte Orca), “Fluorescent Half Dome” ( Bitte Orca), “Offspring are Blank” (Swing Lo Magellan), “Unto Caesar” (Swing Lo Magellan), “I Found it in U,” (Lamp Lit Prose)
So You Want to Get Into: Damn, This is Charmingly Pretentious Dirty Projectors
This is the chief complaint about Dirty Projectors, and sure, all of Longstreth’s music, to a certain degree, is pretentious. There are highfalutin concepts and obscure album titles and even more obscure lyrical references, but more often than not, Longstreth’s songwriting and arrangement prowess, and the musicians he surrounds himself with, transcends any weightiness of pretension, instead using these outré concepts to obfuscate obvious meaning in an attempt at something larger. Sometimes, the music is both very pretentious and very interesting, which is the territory a lot of his early solo Dirty Projectors work occupies.
Longstreth’s 2005 release, The Getty Address, is an experimental pop opera loosely based on Don Henley with allusions to ancient Mexico and post-9/11 America tossed in there for good measure. The record features over 20 guest musicians and was recorded while Longstreth was at Yale. (Ever heard of it?) A lot of the record is shockingly good, considering its description makes it sound like the least enjoyable listen imaginable. Longstreth’s earliest Dirty Projectors work, 2003’s Morning Better Last! and The Glad Fact, in addition to 2004’s Slaves’ Graves & Ballads and The Getty Address, is scattershot, the songwriter’s most inconsistent period by a longshot, yet still featuring glimmers of the genius to come.
Dirty Projectors’ post-2005 work, which mostly saw Longstreth collaborating with a band, is less heavy on conceptual pretension, instead lacing his lyrics with hard to decipher beat poems of the disenchanted and fragmented half-thoughts that only cohere in the mind of one man. But when the music is as good as it is in this later period, I’m more than willing to excuse a song about oil spills from the perspective of the animals affected, or a rap in the middle of a ballad about getting your heart stomped on.
On Lamp Lit Prose, Longstreth strips back his more megalomaniac songwriting tendencies, but on “Zombie Conqueror (Feat. Amber Mark),” old habits die hard and over a surprisingly raucous rhythm section and splattered acoustic guitar mumblings, Longstreth finds himself singing about abstract victories and defeats.
Playlist: “My Offwhite Flag” ( The Glad Fact), “Like Fake Blood in Crisp October,” ( The Glad Fact), “Off Science Hill” ( The Glad Fact), “Slaves’ Graves” ( Slaves’ Graves & Ballads), “I Will Truck” ( The Getty Address), “D. Henley’s Dream” ( The Getty Address), “Not Having Found” ( The Getty Address), “Tour Along the Potomac” ( The Getty Address), “Drilling Profitably” ( The Getty Address), “The Bride” ( Bitte Orca), “Gun Has No Trigger” ( Swing Lo Magellan), “Just From Chevron” ( Swing Lo Magellan), “Maybe That Was It” ( Swing Lo Magellan), “Keep Your Name” ( Dirty Projectors), “Zombie Conqueror (Feat. Amber Mark)” Lamp Lit Prose
So You Want To Get Into: These Harmonies Could Be Your Life Dirty Projectors
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” That’s what the ladies of Dirty Projectors sound like on “As I Went Out One Morning,” a Bob Dylan cover featured on the expanded edition of Bitte Orca. A lot of Dirty Projectors harmonies sound like “Ahhhhhhhh,” which should be off-putting and bad sounding, but is quite the opposite when executed by women with terrific voices who could turn a melody written by my tone deaf grandpa into something breathtaking and beautiful.
Longstreth started getting heavily into harmonies on Rise Above, at which point he was surrounded by talented female vocalists. On Rise Above, those singers were Amber Coffman and Susanna Waich. Angel Deradoorian would arrive to tour the record, before joining Coffman on the Bitte Orca sessions, with the addition of Haley Dekle. Swing Lo Magellan was made without Deradoorian, and after that LP, Longstreth broke up with then-girlfriend Coffman, leading to a complete restructure of the Dirty Projectors for the band’s eponymous return in 2017. Lamp Lit Prose features the same rhythm section as Swing Lo Magellan (Nat Baldwin on bass and Johnson on drums), but the vocalists have all changed.
Longstreth’s ability to stretch, manipulate, and re-distribute vocal lines is one of the most exciting parts of the band iteration of Dirty Projectors. He excavated the Medieval technique known as hocketing, in which one vocal line is split into multiple parts, executed perfectly by the vocalists on Bitte Orca’s “Remade Horizon” and Mount Wittenberg Orca’s “When the World Comes to an End.”
Bitte Orca is essentially one long harmony and Rise Above features some of the most gorgeous multi-part arrangements Longstreth has ever penned. There’s also an entire collaborative record with Björk ( Mount Wittenberg Orca), and while our favorite Icelandic fairy doesn’t do any of the heavy harmonic lifting, the way Deradoorian, Dekle, and Coffman bounce around her steady voice on tracks like “On and Ever Onward” is breathtaking. That record (especially the track“ Beautiful Mother”) features otherworldly and impossible to describe harmonies that are especially awe-inducing live.
Lamp Lit features ample moments of ecstatic harmony performances, but the standout moments are ones of subtlety, not excess. “That’s a Lifestyle” features beautiful, mirrored harmonic lines between Longstreth and new Projectors. On “What is the Time” Longstreth muses over a soft rock/R&B blend that somehow works—with just enough tweaks and quirks to move away from cheeky territory—backed by surprisingly nimble upper-register male voices. A Projectors first!
Playlist: “Gimme Gimme Gimme” ( Rise Above), “Temecula Sunrise ( Bitte Orca), “No Intention” ( Bitte Orca), “Remade Horizon” ( Bitte Orca), “As I Went Out One Morning” ( Bitte Orca Expanded), “On and Ever Onward” ( Mount Wittenberg Orca), “When the World Comes to an End” ( Mount Wittenberg Orca) “Beautiful Mother” ( Mount Wittenberg Orca), “About to Die” ( Swing Lo Magellan), “Impregnable Question” ( Swing Lo Magellan) “See What She Seeing” ( Swing Lo Magellan), “That’s a Lifestyle” ( Lamp Lit Prose), “What is the Time” ( Lamp Lit Prose)
So You Want To Get Into: Damn, This Band Can Get Funky Dirty Projectors
Everyone was all excited and buzzy after Dirty Projectors released Rise Above and pummeled audiences into oblivion on the subsequent tour. But those feelings quickly turned into confusion and a quiet optimism when the band released “Stillness is the Move” as the first single off Bitte Orca. The track is a straight-ahead R&B banger, with stadium ready drums and a guitar line laser sharp and shining bright like a diamond. Coffman steals the show with her vocal performance (both Coffman and Deradoorian got solo performances on Bitte Orca, with “Stillness” taking much of the spotlight away from Deradoorian’s gorgeous ballad, “Two Doves”), channeling her inner Mariah and relying on cliché lyrics to illustrate Longstreth’s meta-comment on a genre he grew up adoring (Longstreth is a self-professed Timberlake devotee).
“Stillness” was the first time Dirty Projectors moved outside of their experimental indie rock territory, and it’s a sound Longstreth would rely heavily on for his 2017 solo release, Dirty Projectors. There’s some irony in the fact that “Stillness,” a love song about maturing and growing up, is sung by Coffman, who served as inspiration for the sonically similar Dirty Projectors after her and Longstreth went through a messy breakup.
Dirty Projectors is an audio diary in the best and worst sense of the phrase, letting us into Longstreth’s psyche in a way he’d never before granted access, but unable to refrain from cringeworthy lines that come across as more spiteful and vindictive than heartbroken. But on the first song of Lamp Lit Prose, Longstreth finds himself immediately reconciling with the person he presented on Dirty Projectors, singing on the Syd-featuring album opener “Right Now,” “I don’t know how I’m gonna be a better man.” Over quirkily strummed guitar chords and warm keyboard chords, Longstreth and Syd trade melodic lines while being bolstered by rolling drums. It’s a kitchen-sink track, Longstreth re-integrating himself to a world outside of Dirty Projectors’ cold synthesis of anger and resentment, gloriously in love with the sounds one can make.
Playlist: “Stillness is the Move” (Bitte Orca), “The Socialites” ( Swing Lo Magellan), “Death Spiral” ( Dirty Projectors), “Up in Hudson” ( Dirty Projectors), “Winner Take Nothing” ( Dirty Projectors), “Cool Your Heart” ( Dirty Projectors), “I See You” ( Dirty Projectors), “Right Now (Feat. Syd)” (Lamp Lit Prose), “I Feel Energy (Feat. Amber Mark)” ( Lamp Lit Prose)
So You Want to Get Into: Dave Longstreth is the Reincarnation of a 16th Century Composer Dirty Projectors
For all of the wildly diverse avenues Longstreth has led the various incarnations of Dirty Projectors down, there’s one throughline that organizes his life work with a steady hand. Longstreth is a master arranger, and as his compositions grow in complexity, his ability to isolate certain ideas while retaining a sense of intricacy is the thread that holds the entire project together.
Even from Longstreth’s earliest days as a composer, his knack for classical arrangements and orchestral inclinations reverberated throughout his work. Slaves’ Graves & Ballads is actually two records rolled into one, the former, Slaves’ Graves, a collaboration with The Orchestral Society For the Preservation of the Orchestra. That group is likely just a gaggle of Yale students naming themselves in the most Yale way possible, but even as a neophyte songwriter, Longstreth was notably ahead of the curve.
The Getty Address features a digitized orchestra of sorts, trading in classical strings for electronic instrumentation and the occasional glass bottle percussion section. I’m certain Dave Longstreth is the first to interpret Black Flag’s work with singing strings, and Bitte Orca features a heart wrenching chamber performance on “Two Doves.” Hidden away on the About to Die EP is perhaps Longstreth’s most gorgeous string presentation to date, a short track titled “While You’re Here,” a heartbreaking dirge in honor of Gerard Smith, the late bassist of TV On the Radio.
No matter where Longstreth takes his music, the core will be solidified by a need for extravagant composition and multi-layered arrangements. It isn’t always practical, but more often than not, it’s stunning. This continues to be the case on Lamp Lit’s “Break-Thru” wherein Longstreth finds himself going one-on-one with a string arrangement, before a sweet Afropop-inspired guitar line slips in and gives the track its sweetness.
Playlist: “(Throw On) The Hazard Lights” ( Slaves’ Graves & Ballads), “Grandfather’s Hanging” ( Slaves’ Graves & Ballads), “Hazard Lights (Reprise)” ( Slaves’ Graves & Ballads), “I Sit on the Ridge At Dusk” ( The Getty Address), “Warholian Wigs” ( The Getty Address), “Time Birthed Spilled Blood” ( The Getty Address), “No More” ( Rise Above), “Two Doves” ( Bitte Orca), “Dance For You” ( Swing Lo Magellan), “While You Are Here” ( About To Die EP), “Little Bubble” ( Dirty Projectors), “Break-Thru” ( Lamp Lit Prose)