Thursday, October 22, 2009

Live Review: Dirty Projectors at the Ottobar

This review comes compliments of Jason Tomassini, a like-minded musically obsessed local journalist. Jay has typically covered some hip hop for us in the past, but wanted to throw in his input on Tuesday night's packed Dirty Projectors show at the Ottobar.

A lot has been made of the “genius” of Dave Longstreth, showcased on the several weird and complicated albums and EPs he’s recorded over the past decade as Dirty Projectors.

And while those albums were very good in their own right -- as exercises in great technical skill, taking a background in music composition and applying it to rock music and some level of batshit craziness (2005’s The Getty Address was a concept album about Don Henley; 2007’s Rise Above an indie rock album of Black Flag covers) -- it wasn’t exactly the most accessible brand of indie rock.

With the odd time signatures, the seemingly random application of bongos, cowbells and woodwind instruments and the abrupt undulations of Longstreth's voice, it's just difficult music, and that's probably the best way to describe DPs overall musical aesthetic. But there was still something that kept bringing fans back. You could tell there were pop songs somewhere in there, it was just really difficult to find them.

There was nothing difficult about enjoying Dirty Projectors’s Tuesday night show at Ottobar however, mainly because the majority of the set came from DPs latest album Bitte Orca, a truly great pop album that finds the catchy gems deep within DPs back catalogue, combines with aspects of their trademark weirdness, and runs with it. The result is something accessible to those outside academia and to bearded 20-something hipsters who don't necessarily have a working knowledge of West African guitarists. As a six-piece with three female vocalists, Dirty Projectors look and perform like a real rock band now, even if their musical skill makes them overqualified to do so. And while they have embraced Bitte Orca’s pop sentiments, it’s still a spectacle really unlike any other in indie rock to watch DPs perform.

Longstreth and his three female vocalists interchange their parts seamlessly, an effort in four-part vocal harmony that seems implausible to pull of live when you hear it on record, but is done with ease. The precise jamouts that are more prevalent on early DPs records are lively on stage, with the painfully timid Longstreth and the slightly-less-shy female vocalists losing themselves during brief interludes of headbanging and shredding. (I've never given props to a sound crew before, but Ottobar stepped up their game last night).

Epic Bitte Orca centerpiece "Useful Chamber" sort of mashed all of this together, as DPs slowed and sped up the tempo -- over two distinct halves of the nearly 7-minute track -- with ease and the quasi-beat-boxing of two female vocalists sounded nearly identical to the album version; that the crowd anticipated every twist and turn is a testament to how tight the musicians are live. But it was still the songs that made Bitte Orca an authentic pop record gave the crowd the biggest rise. Standouts "Temecula Sunrise" and "No Intentions" -- radiant pop songs not out of place on even the catchiest, sunniest summer playlists – had the crowd bobbing up and down, essentially the closest thing you can do to dancing at a DPs show.

Bitte Orca's first single "Stillness Is the Move" -- which wouldn't be out of place on a really ambitious Mariah Carey album – stumbled off the bat as Longstreth and the band’s bassist couldn’t quite get on the same page when creating the beat to the song, which sounds like something Timbaland might make on his weirdest days. But eventually they go in synch and Amber Coffman eventually hit her stride on lead vocals and the crowd tried in vain to sing along to notes that really no one in the room besides Coffman was capable of hitting.

And by that point, about halfway through the set, what was most surprising wasn’t that Dirty Projectors pulled off an R&B song with a West African-sounding rhythm section and indie-rock chicks hitting Whitney Houston notes, it was that it took them a minute to perfect it.

And that's really what made the show so memorable: Dirty Projectors make difficult songs look and sound easy on stage, removing all that pesky close listening and giving us no alternative but to dance and sing along like we expected nothing less than perfection.

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