Dave Longstreth Takes a Village

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Published May 27, 2009

Dave Longstreth, the principal songwriter behind Dirty Projectors, is building a house. Over the course of four albums, a compilation of cassettes, three EPs, and with the help of countless collaborators including Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend (a longtime friend), Longstreth and band have grafted the off-kilter time signatures of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band with African and North American musical vernaculars, and an intrepid sensibility (and voice) reminiscent of Arthur Russell.  (LEFT: PHOTO BY SARAH CASS)

But such comparisons don’t do the band’s new album, Bitte Orca, justice: It really doesn’t sound like anything other than Dirty Projectors. What they all share is the uncanny ability to overlap and combine opposites in a way that sounds natural and pushes the boundaries of what pop music can sound like. “It’s like I’m gradually putting something together where anything belongs, and it works,” Longstreth said over the phone from Portland, Oregon, where the band has begun a summer tour opening for TV on the Radio that returns to their home turf on June 5 at Central Park Summerstage.

Dirty Projectors’ last album, Rise Above, was an audacious re-imagining of Black Flag’s Damaged, and it endeared the band to new fans in part by pegging Longstreth’s shambolic song structures to one of the purest distillations of punk attitude. It gave Longstreth the space to expand on his predilection for combining unusual grooves with swirling yet meticulously measured vocal harmonies. It was a high concept album that, in a way, bent some of indie rock’s musical paradigms.

With Bitte Orca, the band unhitches the songs from a “concept” and lets the songs stand on their own. Of his work on past albums, Longstreth describes a larger responsibility to the conceptual framework of his band: “I find a way to unify the different music I’ve written under a larger thing.” This time, Longstreth says, the process was different: “I felt it would be nice to ask less of the songs and be direct, and let them be songs.”

The new songs show off Longstreth’s confidence layering different musical ideas. “I like the idea of the role that context plays in what you make and how you can sort of fuck around with that within what you’re making.” On the one hand, the anthemic “Stillness is the Move,” with Amber Coffman on lead vocals, sounds as much at home in Dirty Projectors’ catalogue as it does in R. Kelly’s. On the other end of the spectrum, the cascading guitar-work “No Intention” is reminiscent of Thomas Mapfumo’s Chimurenga music from Zimbabwe.

In recent months, Dirty Projectors have benefited from inspired collaborations with Bjork and David Byrne. Longstreth wrote a suite of original songs for Bjork, which they performed at a Housing Works benefit in early May. (They plan on recording the piece for release.) Bjork was drawn to the band after she heard their cover of “Hyperballad” on the Stereogum-curated tribute album to her. “Bjork has this kind of abstraction and formalism that you associate with art music or avant-garde music,” Longstreth says, “When I first heard Bjork’s music, I felt like I was a similar-minded thinker, both harmonically and melodically. She takes those things that you naturally assume to be opposite because they’re presented that way most of the time, and the way she twines them together is so beautiful. To be able to do that is so powerful.”

Bitte Orca comes out June 9 on Domino Records.