It's not so hard to love a good mind-fuck band, but it can be downright disorienting when your favorite stoner chamber-orchestra genius follows his quiet singer-songwriter album with an abstract rock opera, only to break out the psychedelic Prince jams on the next record.
Dirty Projectors is the conceptual pop group helmed by David Longstreth, a young Brooklynite with a house full of beautiful handblown water bongs (one imagines). Listening to the band, one also imagines Longstreth's brainiac avant-garde compositions arriving in an antique sleigh pulled by a herd of stoney ponies. Or maybe that's just me.
The band's most famous achievement is 2005's The Getty Address, which is billed as “the world's only animated opera about Don Henley!” The claim is unverifiable, but the accompanying film is nuts: Longstreth stars in the role of a suicidal Don Henley. The music is even trippier than the visuals — stuttering, clanging percussion undercuts otherworldly female choral arrangements, marimbas jam, a chamber orchestra flits in and out, and it's digitally cut up and refigured for maximum disorientation. The vibe is a dissonant, glitchy, vaguely African, baroque hip-hop jammer, and if all this sounds totally over-the-top and Yale-educated, that's because it is. The loveliest moments come when Longstreth drops out of art school for a second and just sings, as he does on the opening track “I Sit on the Ridge at Dusk,” wherein Don Henley considers shuffling off his mortal coil. As much ill as you might wish on Don Henley, for a moment here you feel for the guy. Longstreth chose to make a “Passion of the Henley” project to vent his anger at crappy music in general, and specifically to touch on a disagreement with his Eagles-loving older brother. When he was 13 and his brother was 19, he explains by phone, “We made a shitload of music together. Making those tapes was huge for us, [but] a sad rift emerged — the Eagles are emblematic of it. [They're] just alienatingly insincere — white-bread, bubblegum [music]. They proffer this AA, Christian, peaceful, easy feeling. It's at odds with the way I was feeling about music; it should be a passionate engagement with the world.” He continues, “I felt like putting [Henley] through The Portrait of the Artist [as a Young Man] treatment. I wanted to make him passionate.”
The passion in The Getty Address ends up mostly buried in all the glitch-sorcery, but it's nakedly on display in Slaves' Graves and Ballads, Dirty Projectors' (sort of) conventional 2004 pop record. Longstreth has a beautifully pained, warbling falsetto, like an unhinged Jeff Buckley, and bravely exposes it to the elements on Graves. “The melodies I write are for ladies' voices,” Longstreth says. “It's a fun dissonance to be singing melodies that are clearly written for a woman.” A quivering, Gershwin-elegant orchestra, or plain acoustic guitar, accompanies the collection of fragile and wintry love songs. Longstreth has mixed feelings about the album. “I can't believe you liked that one,” he says. “It's too vulnerable.”
Last year's New Attitudes EP is similarly romantic, but instead of vulnerability, it's a seven-song blast of raging schizophrenia — an acid-laced gumbo of reconstituted IDM, Vivaldi, soul, folk, Bobby McFerrin, glitch, and booty, sometimes all in the same track. The virtuosity is frightening and it's the ultimate Don Henley-slayer: a passionate engagement with every kind of music produced by humans.