Wednesday, July 18, 2012

album review: 'swing lo magellan' by the dirty projectors

Short version: yeah, these guys are seriously talented instrumentalists, but outside of that, there's nothing of substance good or interesting enough to justify the artifice. In other words, it's insubstantial, and outside of the great leading single, not really worth your time.

Today, we're going to talk about hipster music, and the culture that supports it.

Considering my fondness for weirdness and off-beat stuff nobody has ever heard of, one initially might make the reasonable assumption that I hold some fondness for the hipster lifestyle, that I might be one of the exotic coffee-drinking, art film-viewing, glasses-wearing, generally snobbish fellows that peruses Pitchfork and has general disdain for everything popular. Now, anybody who has read any of my reviews would know by now that's not the case, and while I can appreciate some of the art and music and films that come out of the hipster culture, I know myself well enough not to consider myself a hipster. In fact, if I'm going to be completely honest, I don't really have the highest opinion of 'hipsters' in general.

Part of it comes down to attitude, I think. There's a certain element of condescension inherent in hipster culture that comes with seemingly knowing and 'understanding' things other people don't, but here's the contradiction: for something to remain hipster-friendly, it needs to remain somewhat underground. If it becomes popular, suddenly it's not cool in the same way, unless said hipsters appreciate it 'ironically'. It comes down to not appreciating the art because it's good or profound or interesting or groundbreaking, but because the 'mainstream' hasn't discovered yet. It's the thrill of being in a secret society and the assumption that just because someone is privileged enough to have the time to go hunting for this sort of material, it makes that person better. Now granted, I get the appeal, but I've got to be honest, I'd prefer that the wider culture would embrace the art in question because it's good, and might provide a message that benefits society on a greater level. While hipster culture promotes exclusivity, I'd prefer something more inclusive, with the only barrier to entry coming in the interpretation or reflection of the artwork. 

And here's where we come to the part of things where hipsters cringe, because it's something they really don't want to admit, and that's the deeper message of most of the 'hipster culture' they admire just isn't nearly as deep as they want it to be. I think, on some level, hipsters recognize that, and thus they seek out music that's more esoteric and bizarre in aesthetic, but not really all that deep or interesting upon a closer examination. It's one of my bigger problems with Pitchfork - not that they don't do a decent job analyzing the external aesthetic and mechanics of a song (albeit all of them need to put away the damn thesaurus), but that they rarely go deeper into the message and deeper meaning of the work. 

Now, it doesn't help matters that being a hipster is becoming a 'thing', so to speak. The mainstream market was starting to realize the appeal of the hipster 'brand' as early as 1995 with the opening of RENT (likely earlier in some places), and it has reached the point that there is indeed a hipster 'brand'. For as anti-corporate as some hipsters like to think they are, they feel to realize that their lifestyles and cultural appreciation are dependent upon the corporate brands that feed them. And as ironic as that is, I can't help but feel a twinge of unease when I see the mainstream adopting some of the aesthetic of hipsters and indie rock while completely missing any substance that might be hiding inside. I've ranted about Foster The People before, how they were a band that was co-opting the hipster look and feel for their music and the attitude for the message, but the message was so insidious and phony that it felt like a self-absorbed parody in the vein of 3OH!3, but they aren't the only band that fits into the corporate co-opting of the hipster brand.

And here's the worst part - instead of fighting this by writing interesting, deeper songs, hipster music has hidden behind greater and greater artifice, perhaps to disguise the fact that they've never had anything that interesting to say in the first place. As an act, Metric's Synthetica was at least trying to make a statement, but most hipster indie rock won't even bother.

And with that, we have to talk about The Dirty Projectors, an indie rock band that's hipster through and through.

Now don't get me wrong, I will freely admit the band is exceptionally musically talented, and they take every opportunity to show it in solos and breakdowns and key shifts and meddling with time signature, and I would be hardpressed to not define their music as artistic. There's genuine talent here, and I do think the band makes interesting, if a bit challenging music. It's the kind of music that has a steep learning curve and requires attention to be able to interpret and understand it - and that, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. I like challenging music, and I like trying to decipher the meaning behind songs. 

And make no mistake, the last album The Dirty Projectors made, Bitte Orca, is as dense and obtuse as it comes. The sheer explosion of classical musical talent was shocking to me, and it was quite difficult to both focus on the intricate arrangements and the weird lyrics. But I will criticize the album for a stuttering flow - the songs weren't particularly rhythmic (which may have been part of the point), and that annoyed me a bit. I can appreciate breakdowns - exposure to bands like Between The Buried And Me got me used to that - but the lack of structure came across as a bit dissonant, the band discarding the time signature not because they're creating an interesting pattern that will eventually bear fruit, but because they want to show off. And while it's impressive, I would have preferred a bit more structure and flow. As it was, I didn't think that any of the songs had significant impact or moved me in any respect, and for a band that's clearly trying so damn hard, it was annoying.

Fortunately, The Dirty Projectors did mostly rectify this on their new album, Swing Lo Magellan, as the backing rhythm sections are much more polished. However, outside of a few isolated points, the instrumentation has been greatly simplified, and I find that a bit disappointing - what, now that you have to work within a time signature, you can't have your intricate guitar breakdown? That being said, I do like this, because it also gives a chance for the lyrics to reach the forefront of the song and get some importance. So what do the Dirty Projectors have to say?

Well, despite the usual vocal gymnastics and intricate harmonies, the lyrics are fairly simple, and are also reasonably easy to interpret. This is a shift from Bitte Orca, and I do think it's a good one, but the problem is that the messages, once again, really aren't all that profound. The first song is an easy criticism of American social values in red states through dystopian styling, and the metaphors are clumsy and obvious, really nothing that hasn't been said or done before. 'About To Die' is another dystopian melody, but despite the dark lyrics, the instrumentation and singing is quite cheerful. It's a well-executed example of dissonance, but it's the sort of song I can imagine being sung behind a forced smile or a rictus grin. It's interesting to say the least, but I'd hesitate to call it all that great, because, once again, this is an exploration of dystopian themes that was done better with the classical 40s and 50s music in Fallout 3.

The first point where I feel the Dirty Projectors get any mileage out of their dystopian motif is in the next song, 'Gun Has No Trigger'. It's haunting as all hell, and for once, the music fits the subject, an examination of a man responsible for a dystopian world who is only now realizing his sins. The first verse discusses a woman who attempts escape from the world the man created, the second discusses a mob of people who hate and blame him and his failure to control them, and the last verse discusses his attempt to kill himself in despair, but not being able to do it. Once again, the metaphors are simple, but here it works because the exploration of the character of the dystopia creator is executed as well as it is, and the music supports it.

And then the dystopian theme seems to be dropped with the title track, and the lackluster instrumentation really doesn't lend any significance to the bland subject matter. The song is a very basic riff on self-absorption and obsession with one's quest and ignoring everyone else around him, to the point where he blinds himself. Suffice to say, it's not compelling. Nor is the next song, 'Just From Chevron', which is about a guy who dies in an accident during an oil spill. Granted, the lyrics here are a bit more clever, as the dying man discusses a love/hate relationship with his work, but the song ultimately just becomes a pro-environmental riff against the oil industry - which loses impact considering the initial incident in the song was an accident. Were the Dirty Projectors trying to be clever and add additional dimensions? Possible, but I doubt it - the female singers for the prelude and coda are way too somber and bitter to make this come across as anything more than an 'oil=evil' song. I will compliment the instrumental complexity, but even with that, I think the song lacks the gravitas and power to make the anti-oil message really kick.

The next song, 'Dance For You', is a bit of an oddity - not only is the reverb abused like no tomorrow, but they actually pick up the dystopian motif again. It's about a guy who can't find meaning in the general dreariness and depression of dystopian life, so he's going to dance and live life to the fullest until he can get there. It's a surprisingly simple song, but it works because the instrumentation, driven by a simple handclap melody and jaunty guitar, actually works. It's certainly a contrast to the next tune, 'Maybe That Was It', a song examining what might have caused this dystopia through a series of metaphors for takeover. The metaphors are simple enough, and despite the abuse of the reverb, the generally disappointment and dreariness of the track does sort of work, although I do think the 'maybe that was it' chord progression might have had more impact if they had stuck with landing on a minor chord instead of a major one.

The dystopian theme is dropped again with 'Impregnable Question', which is a fairly simple, straightforward love song. It's pleasant enough, but it's not particularly special outside of the solid delivery and good harmonies. Normally I'm a sucker for this kind of song (I can admit it), but once again, it doesn't feel all that special. The next song, 'See What I'm Seeing', is a 'I need somebody to love' song, and while the lyrics are significantly better, the detuned theremin throughout the song is distracting as all hell. I certainly preferred it when the strings came in, but overall, it felt like something else was needed to drive the song outside of the scratching noises at the bottom of the track.

The next song is the requisite 'girls-only' Dirty Projectors track, and it reminds me of a Postal Service track rewritten by a high school girl - and believe me, it comes across in the lyrics. It's a basic riff against the insincerity of popular girls and everything that they used to bang on about in Mean Girls, but once again, there's nothing new here, and for the one female driven track, I was hoping for something with a little more depth. It's just completely insubstantial, lacking any serious punch or meaning. It's certainly a contrast to the next song, 'Unto Caesar', which to be completely honest, completely defies a simple interpretation. It doesn't help that the female singers shout over the track at points, 'That doesn't make any sense' (they're right), but I won't deny it's catchy, if desperately unpolished. My closest interpretation is that they tried to pick up the dystopian motif again, this time from the perspective of one of the enforcers who chooses inflexible discipline and callous amorality to deal with the horrible shit he's asked to do by the tyrant. It's another example of juxtaposition like 'About To Die', but I think this song works a little better, namely because the music flows more and the metaphors have more payoff. Other than that, though, I can't really decipher much more.

The last song, however, is easily one of the simplest to decipher - keeping the dystopian theme, the singer takes the role of a singer who's persecuted for his songs. The dissonance comes with the choice to overuse the reverb again and bring in what feels like a doo-wop style to support the lazy strumming on the guitar which would sound better with a folk melody. And while I like the theme, I really don't think The Dirty Projectors earn a song like this with the rest of the album. If they want to write songs of protest, criticizing the dystopian world they think we live in, I have no problem with that, but none of the songs elicit an emotional reaction from me outside of mild admiration for some of the better tracks and mild annoyance with the worse ones. 

And this allows me to sum up my opinions about The Dirty Projectors quite handily: they just aren't as transcendent and good as their reputation makes them out to be. Yes, they're talented musicians, I can't deny that, but I can't help but see it as just artifice surrounding messages that have little substance and even less nuance. The dystopian theme for the album is explored in a variety of ways on Swing Lo Magellan, but there's a serious lack of focus to make anything stick or resonate with me. The best example of what The Dirty Projectors can be is 'Gun Has No Trigger', but outside of that, I just don't get all the hype here. Make no mistake, the band is talented and pretty good, but I'd have a hard time calling them great or all that special, and compared to better acts, The Dirty Projectors don't come across as smart and insightful as they think they do.

Overall, I think the message of Swing Lo Magellan can ironically be summed up by the hasty Instagram photograph that makes up the cover of the album. The picture depicts a young man miming a guitar for two people - a teenage girl and an old man. The teenage girl seems enthralled at the music the young man is bringing to her. The old man, however, has an exasperated and disappointed expression on his face - because with the wisdom and experience of later years, he knows that despite all the fancy artifice that has captivated his companion, the young man isn't actually playing anything of substance.

1 comment:

  1. This is fucking brilliant. I love your videos now, but holy shit, a great distillation of Pitchfork circle-jerking. Much like their AnCo reviews, you can HEAR them masturbating as you read it.