To thwart photographers attempting to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Chinese government flooded the site with umbrella-wielding plainclothes policemen to ruin shots and block sightlines; a day later, all those guys somehow made it all the way to Central Park to obstruct everyone’s view of the Dirty Projectors.
It is Friday night, the first SummerStage fete of the year: a paid, ticketed benefit with TV on the Radio as the headliner and the Dirty Projectors, Brooklyn Art-Rock Band of the
Year Month Week, as the appetizer. The weather is unceasingly miserable. Bleak, unromantic sheets of rain cascade down onto our heads and seep into our shoes. We are hastily swaddled in boots, jackets, and dripping hoods, tapping at our iPhones through plastic bags, our bodies hermetically sealed and immobile and, of course, ensconced beneath a horde of umbrellas, some comically oversized, all conspiring to make it impossible to actually lay eyes on singer-guitarist Amber Coffman as she bounces jubilantly about the stage, spinning and grinning as if her microphone was a hairbrush and we her bedroom mirror. She is belting out “Stillness Is the Move,” a fantastic song of seemingly unironic jubilation. The incongruity is not amusing.
“Stillness Is the Move” took a couple hits for me this weekend, this water-logged debacle only being the first, but I love it still, the bizarrely wonderful centerpiece to the Projectors’ bizarrely wonderful new album, Bitte Orca. Frontman/mastermind Dave Longstreth is tall and lanky and gawky and mesmerizing, armed with both a volatile, deceptively delicate singing voice and a complex, pointillist, frantic guitar style, with both a West African exuberance and a distinctly Brooklynite undertone of menace and paranoia. But his band’s beating heart is a trio of female singers—currently Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle—who alternately howl, tweet (like the bird), bray, shriek, and coo their way through painstakingly arranged caterwauls and somersaults. Simply put: A few weeks back, at Soho’s Housing Works Bookstore Café, they collaborated with Björk and effortlessly both outsung and out-weirded her. Even more simply put: They are the prog B-52s.
Bitte Orca is both thrilling and maddening, sometimes simultaneously: Wouldn’t the exultant chorus of “Temecula Sunrise” sound so much better without all the time-signature wonkery and arty obfuscation, or are the obfuscation and wonkery what make it so exultant? Does it inspire awe or just confusion that Longstreth sings the following words so sweetly, so ecstatically, as if they were wedding vows?
Definitely, you can come and live with us!
I know there’s a place for
you in the basement, yeah!
All you gotta do is help out with the
chores and [ecstatic harmony]
And I know you will!
“Stillness Is the Move” is (slightly) easier to process: Over a stuttering beat and a typically sharp, treble-overload guitar line, Coffman takes over lead vocals and kills it, with the multi-octave assault of Mariah Carey but the childlike vigor of a freestyle diva, scampering up the dizzying melodic ladder of the chorus-opening line “After/All that/We’ve been/Through!” and breathlessly delivering a primo starry-eyed stoner monologue during the breathtaking bridge: “Isn’t life under the sun just a crazy, crazy, crazy dream? . . . Where did time begin? Where does this end? Where do you and I, where do you and I begin?”
(The other bummer about “Stillness Is the Move” to emerge this weekend: the revelation, in a Sunday New York Times profile, that the lyrics were written when “Mr. Longstreth had Ms. Coffman watch the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire and write down lines of dialogue that intrigued her; other lyrics were drawn from an Excel spreadsheet of hundreds of pop clichés.” Ah, cripes. For such a fantastic song to have been crafted in such a contrived, arms-length, almost satirical way is a real drag. Let’s not get to feeling all superior to those pop clichés, everybody. The song’s strength lies in its directness, its unfettered joy—an Excel spreadsheet? Really? I hate computers.)
We connect with the dumbstruck sentiment emotionally on Friday, if not visually—but, overall, the Projectors struggle. The washed-out crowd is lifeless. The set begins with Orca‘s other guest-lead-vocal highlight, Deradoorian moaning the fragile and softly unsettling lovers lullaby “Two Doves,” but a shaky mix robs the tune of its power, and plays hell everywhere else: Longstreth is a deft and inventive guitar player, but tonight, his leads emerge in farting, jagged, abrupt blasts, like a live version of one of those savage “[Famous Guitarist] Shreds” YouTube videos, a fate he doesn’t deserve any more than we do. Only drummer Brian Mcomber emerges unscathed, skating through all those hairpin turns and violent mood swings carefully but powerfully; his propulsion ensures that mini-epic “Useful Chamber,” which boasts Orca‘s most raucous chorus (“Bitte orca/Orca bitte!”) and daffiest operatic attacks, doesn’t completely wilt, but it nearly does anyway, the dynamics, the timing, the setting, the weather all just a little (or a lot) off.
Alas. TV on the Radio jump on next and steamroll everyone and everything—the rain, via pure force of will, eventually stops—but the DPs not yet being able to fully summon their intricacy and their idiosyncracy live is neither a crime nor a surprise nor an uncommon problem. A good roof is a good start.