There’s quite a long history of geeky (white) Americans taking inspiration from African music and beats, from David Byrne, through Paul Simon, to the present day’s Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer. It would be easy, on a superficial listen, to file Dirty Projectors in the same category, but, despite the distinguished company it would be placing them with, that would probably be doing this complex yet compelling album a bit of a disservice.
There are, certainly, several moments that could be loosely termed “afrobeat”. The guitar and rhythms found in parts of Temecula Sunrise, Useful Chamber and particularly Remade Horizon (in the call-and-response “Yeah, I wanna” vocal as much as the instrumentation) all fit the bill.
It’s just that there is so much more than that going on too. The music is so experimental in feel that on first listen much of it can seem almost arbitrary or random, and difficult to categorise or approach. As one becomes more familiar with the tracks (notably Cannibal Resources, StillnessIs The Move, Two Doves, No Intention, Remade Horizon and Fluorescent Half Dome) their own internal logic and structure begin to reveal themselves, often quite wonderfully. To put it more prosaically, these are all very much “growers”.
Part of what really gets under the skin is the way that instruments, voices and beats will burst in to the middle of a song, like unexpected but welcome party crashers, surprising the listener, but never – somehow – jarring. Witness the random drum fills on the otherwise stately and elegiac Fluorescent Half Dome; the way the vocal goes from very high (falsetto) to quite low, and from quiet to much louder, as if a dial was being turned, on The Bride; or the fits and starts of the lead singing in Temecula Sunrise.
Another joy is the range of different musical styles that are encompassed:many little string arrangements dotted throughout the album sound as elegant and stately as a Brahms concerto; but then at the next moment you find the distinctly R&B feel of Stillness Is The Move: an amazing track that can easily be imagined as one of the more “out there” moments from, say, Beyoncé or Kelis. Smatterings of funk are also to be found (Cannibal Resource, Useful Chamber), and there’s even a distinctly oriental slant, found on No Intention.
A significant proportion of the music sounds like it is being improvised as we listen, but improvised so deftly that one’s faith doesn’t falter.Even the lyrics (which tend towards the impenetrable, but with a slight, surprisingly conventional bias towards the old failsafe themes of love and sex) seem like they may be being free-formed on Temecula Sunrise.
Perhaps the most straightforward song on the album is the gorgeous Two Doves. One of only two tracks where a female vocal takes the lead, this is (in the context of this album, at any rate) a simple and affecting melody, beautifully delivered, with mainly acoustic guitar and strings as accompaniment.
As she sings of the “Geranium kisser / Skin like silk and face like glass” it is difficult not to be moved. Other highlights are the aforementioned Stillness Is The Move, and the long and complex Useful Chamber, which almost serves as a showcase for all the key elements of Dirty Projectors’ sound.
As with a lot of the best, and ultimately most satisfying music, then, this is an album that is certainly worthwhile persisting with. Clever, original, complicated, sometimes frustrating but more often revelatory, it will, given time, uncover its manifold delights.