Swing Lo Magellan
Prior to the release of 2009’s Bitte Orca, I’d never heard of Dirty Projectors and assumed Dave Longstreth was long some forgotten member of The Big Red Machine. After purchasing the album on New Year’s Day of that year, however, I realized they were one of the most engaging and progressive acts of the last 10 to 15 years. Their knack for creating infectious pop melodies out of awkward guitar work and beautifully bizarre vocal arrangements made them seem completely mysterious, which was and remains rare in this era of constant, often banal, musical media saturation. My only concern for Swing Lo Magellan (apparently a reference to the GPS device??) was the worry that with expectations so high, it couldn’t help but disappoint. Not 90 seconds into opener "Offspring Are Blank" it became obvious that not only are they wiping the slate completely clean, but have created something entirely unexpected. A deliberate sonic jolt, the kind windmill-strummed by a young punk rocking his stuffy, overbearing father into the next room, introduces this record as anything but "Bitte Orca II". "About to Die" is just as good, a head-nodding exercise in percussion and twinkling plucks culminating in the greatest cello hook since Yo-Yo Ma spent that weekend at Kanye’s. Perhaps it’s my deep-seeded contrarian bent, or the needlessly histrionic approach, but the album’s first single "Gun Has No Trigger" is the only track I dislike. The following three cuts, on the other hand, are some of the best on the album. Title track "Swing Lo Magellan" is a fleetingly gorgeous guitar ballad, "Just from Chevron" is a fantastic final purge of the Bitte Orca sound, and "Dance For You" is a handclappingly positive elicitor of un-ironic smiles. "Maybe That Was It" emerges as a Blonde Redhead-esque mix of discordant tuning, slightly ethereal vocals, and competent drumming, given the unconventional foundation. To be honest, the lyrical content of this record seems secondary to me, and I have no interest in trying to “get” these songs. As far as I’m concerned (and this applies to most of what I listen to), they’re just love songs. The only place my lazy hypothesis stands up is "Impregnable Question", an incredibly sweet and timeless bit of pop romance. "See What She Seeing" and "The Socialites", though not standout tracks are lovely and don’t detract from the flow of the album. "Unto Caesar" is fast becoming a personal favorite as it is essentially an auditory manifestation of Dirty Projectors themselves. It sounds at once meticulously crafted and organically improvisational, highlighted by their typically knowledgeable playfulness and an odd in-song commentary. "Irresponsible Tune" closes out the album, vaguely reminiscent of Want One era Rufus Wainwright, it’s a fitting end to an album that is both intimate and expansive. Obviously, I have very few negative things to say about this record, I doubt I’ll hear a better one this year. My only word of caution is to prepare for the inevitable moment where you realize how many records you’ve heard recently seem half-assed by comparison. Swing Lo Magellan is a moment in contemporary music that should not be ignored.