Dirty Projectors are a band from Brooklyn who’ve just released Bitte Orca, a highly rewarding and stylized piece of music that’s one of my favorite records right now, and unlike anything else I’ve heard—with the exception of other records by Dirty Projectors.
Rise Above, the band’s previous release, came promoted with a high-concept backstory, a fact I only lately discovered but to which I pay little heed. I became enamored with it not for any ostentatious artistic process (apparently, re-creating Black Flag’s Damaged album from memory) but for the highly unusual end result. After all, until that point, I had never heard a man desperately yowling about being beaten by police officers over Ali Farka Toure riffs while a chorus of girls sang timidly in the background.
A friend of mine recently remarked that Bitte Orca is “everything I wanted all the other Dirty Projectors’ stuff to sound like in my head,” and I know what he means. Sharper songwriting and structure are only two of the reasons I replayed Bitte Orca three times in a row when I first got it; it also has a needed variety, with backup singers Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian taking lead vocals on a handful of tracks with a gut-hitting sonic depth. (Suddenly, for example, you can hear the bass guitar.)
Recalling Talking Heads’ meteoric public impact, opinions on Dirty Projectors are extreme and disparate. So it’s no wonder that David Byrne is a fan, even appearing with the band at Radio City Music Hall earlier this year, or that Bjork, who joined them at Housing Works Bookstore Café in downtown Manhattan the same week, shares the fascination. Even the freeway gods have gotten involved—last month, the band’s tour van flipped over on the freeway outside Detroit—and a long line of people down Divisadero outside the Independent in San Francisco tonight hoping for last-minute tickets represented locally the worldwide craze for the Weird Little Band From Brooklyn That Could. I truly had no idea what to expect live. Are the girls on the record cover even in the band?
Longstreth and Deradoorian took the stage opening the show with “Two Doves,” a lovely ballad, before the full band came out for Orca opener “Cannibal Resource.” Yes, the girls on the record cover are in the band, and a third helped out with harmonies like pitter-pat hailstorms (“Remade Horizon“) or R&B jams (“Stillness is the Move“). Tight and polished from constant touring, the band was locked in and fluid. Liveliness is an asset; Longstreth, who plays his guitar backwards, left-handed and with no pick, doppelganged a hulking presence around the stage on the balls of his feet, and basically said nothing to the crowd other then a rote “Hey, how ya doin’? Awesome.”
The crowd stayed silent, adding to the weirdness, but probably they were just asking themselves: Is “Stillness is the Move” the motherfucking jam of the summer? Why do guitar players need to play with huge amps when tiny Fender practice amps get the job done? Do drummers ever worry about “the Battles effect” when they place their crash cymbals up high? Is the Salt Lake City look the new thing? What’s with people who buy New Age CDs when they could simply listen to “Rise Above” over and over for enlightenment? Remember that one girl? The one who always tucked her shirt in the back of her high-rise jeans but not the front? Whatever happened to her?
Here’s what happened to me: I played Bitte Orca so many times in the last couple weeks that the songs began to sound normal; I’d anticipate all the quirks and idiosyncracies of the songs, like a roller coaster I’d been on twenty times. But seeing the songs played live made them wonderfully mysterious and bizarre all over again—mystery that you can dance to, I might add. So bring on the fans. Here’s to Dirty Projectors’ flight out of their artistic nest and into the real world; especially since their world still contains Gary Moore and the Andrews Sisters.
Despite that fact that most of Abdullah Ibrahim’s performance last night was a 50-minute, uninterrupted medley of themes largely in the same key and slow tempo, admiration was the prevailing response over boredom. To the uninitiated, the incessant piece seemed like the piano equivalent of stumbling into Guitar Center and hearing the omnipresent Dude Who Plays Unending Blues Riffs; Ibrahim would play a melody for a minute or two, change gears, play a different one in the same key for four minutes, change gears again and so on. Sound dull? To Ibrahim’s many fans who filled Yoshi’s in San Francisco, it was a celebration of a rich life and an underdog career.
Born in South Africa, Ibrahim’s music is inextricably linked with the political struggles of his homeland (Ibrahim’s composition “Mannenberg” was the first music Nelson Mandela heard in decades). He grew up amidst upheaval, was discovered by Duke Ellington, moved to Europe and lived in exile until returning to his home country after the fall of Apartheid. His latest album, Senzo, is a solo recording almost identical to last night’s concert: a pensive outing and essentially a 1,224-bar blues with so many chord changes that each resolution to the root seemed like a triumph.
Ibrahim said no words to the crowd, only bowing with palms together before sitting down and showing that he has aged in the best possible way. His playing could never go completely New Age or into the realm of post-Bill Evans fluidity. Ocassional four-fingered, octaved arpeggios recalled Jaki Byard, and at times his use of discord rivaled Paul Bley’s Closer. Snippets of “Memories of You” or “Round Midnight” crept into his playing, but for the most part it was all Ibrahim: a man no longer nimble, full-bodied or particularly fast at the keys, but a man playing as breathing proof that emotion and experience trumps technique.