The Dirty Projectors
Slaves’ Graves and Ballads
hat voice! It’s the glassbreaking squeal your little brother used to unleash when he wanted to get under your skin. It’s the screeching falsetto you parody the radio with when you can’t take its abusive shrill anymore. It’s the sound of teeth clashing and faces scrunching up in nails-on-blackboard nausea. Let’s face it; if you’re going to enjoy Dave Longstreth (the man behind The Dirty Projectors), you’re gonna have to make peace with his warbling bird-croon.
And, with such enjoyable material at hand, it’s too bad many people will be turned off immediately. On The Dirty Projectors Slaves’ Graves and Ballads, Longstreth creates a Technicolor pop music that understands the necessity of fading into black and white every now and again. If the Liars created the chain-rattled hoofscape for the headless horseman, this album should play as dawn spreads pink through empty trees and the wind joins the night’s embers to its dust. The night-woods hysteria becomes silent, and through this distance comes The Dirty Projectors.
Divided into two halves, the album opens with a sun-dizzy classical/pop suite that features The Orchestral Society for the Preservation of the Orchestra (cheeky, ain’t it?). Against subtle strings and woodwinds, Longstreth’s voice often has trouble finding its place in the mix. When he tries to out-sing the accompaniment, as he does on “On the Beach” and “(Throw On) The Hazard Lights,” his yelps force the listener out of the music. It’s like a bloodhound struggling for air, and it carves apart the subtle quartet-feel of the strings.
Yet, at times this albatross becomes a great asset. Content to allow his voice to blend with the orchestra, it often slides along the top like a crude native instrument. On the title track, against jumpy violin strokes and stolid bursts of French horn, Longstreth flushes out the menace in this night-nymphs’ cantata. Moss grows under his toenails and black dirt sculpts his hair as he sings lovely non-sequiturs like “the way a logo’s different from an icon.” No longer so vainglorious, he allows himself his place and doesn’t force himself above the sounds around him.
Picking up right where that song leaves off, “Grandfather’s Hanging” sees Longstreth perfecting this neo-classical mix again. Daybreak strings set the scene, and a flute holds the horizon steady for morning’s approach. As it all gives way to the dark sound of a Schubert-like cello flush, Longstreth unfolds another surreal tale, complete with hair-trigger tempo turns and narrative shifts. His Faulknerian saga is of family trees broken and bloodlines drawn empty—as absurd and incomprehensible as Absalom! Absalom! with the sudden glimpse of back-story that make both so engrossing.
As the album shifts gears into its second half, Longstreth flushes the color from the room with glaringly naked ballads. Accompanied mainly by acoustic guitar, he no longer needs to stretch himself vocally. The room is quiet and pin-drop open, and the silence seems to comfort him. These are easily the steadiest songs of his career, though they pulse with enough ache and reassessment that’s it hard to believe he stays so even-keeled. Songs paced with leisure and levity are given the simplest backbones, and the pairing is mesmerizing. At the odd moments when percussion or electric guitars cut through the quiet (“Obscure Wisdom”), he loses the touch of his composure again and his songs unravel around him in a spin of misplaced sounds and ideas.
Fortunately, this overreaching is held in check throughout most of Slaves’ Graves and Ballads. For such an experimental album, its charms appear quite quickly. You may not want to play it every day, but you’ll return. With all this eccentric wordplay under review, an ironic summation is in order. Webster’s Cliché Phrasebook, entry number. . . oh where was that now oh yes yes here we have it: it’s like nothing else you will hear this year. That’s the one. Tell your kid brother to shut up and listen.