All words by Andy Johnson
All photos by Shauna Alexander
Typically when a band performs a two-night stand at the 9:30 Club, publications choose to cover the first night. This makes sense, as they want to get a review up as fast as possible. Because of prior obligations, I requested to review the Saturday performance of the Dirty Projectors/Wye Oak show. Lucky for me, the Friday show was being recorded for NPR so I’d be able to listen to the previous night’s tunes in anticipation of the second evening.
Another reason why I preferred reviewing the Saturday performance was a belief that given additional rest and extra time to sound check, the band might sub in obscure songs instead of a rehashing their usual set list—perhaps something off their Black Flag reinterpretation Rise Above or a song from their collaboration with reclusive Icelandic drow Bjork? While searching for reviews of the first night, most of the Twitter jabber was overwhelmingly positive, but I was startled to see one hater discredit the group as a front for David Longstreth and his “trained seals.”
Ever heard of the joke, “A seal walks into a club?” Funny, huh? So funny you forgot to laugh?
His point, while sexist and bizarre, does have some merit. According to Wikipedia, the number of former DP members range into the twenties. Former Projectors include members of Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot. While members do come and go—the announcement that vocalist/bassist Angel Deradoorian split prior recording their universally acclaimed album Swing Lo Magellan raised eyebrows—the six-piece remains firmly in control of the long-haired Longstreth.
The “seals” in question are female vocalists Haley Dekle, Olga Bell and Amber Coffman, the singer/guitarist who serves as Longstreth’s primary foil. The polyrhythmic vocal interplay between the three is what makes the Dirty Projectors unique in today’s increasing sterile musical climate. Most in attendance would agree that Coffman upstaged her “trainer” with an incandescent voice that’s half-St. Vincent, half-Mariah Carey.
Wye Oak, the other male-female duo from Baltimore, opened the show. (To answer the obvious question: yes, for a long time, but they now see each other more as siblings). Banged guitarist/singer Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack informed the sold-out audience they were sad to reach the end of their tour with the Dirty Projectors, but were also ready to head home to the Charm City. The groups’ camaraderie was sincere: Wasner thanked Dekle for teaching her how to apply “smokey-eyed makeup” and the two were later seen singing along from the balcony as the Projectors performed below.
Stack and Wasner were on point per usual, marching through their shoegazey songs off 2011’s Civilian with a few other surprises thrown in. The duo opened up with a new song, wherein Wasner sounded like a dead ringer for Bat For Lashes. I’ve seen them several times, yet I’m still amused by Wasner’s orgasm-miming facial ticks during “Holy Holy.” Much like the arrow in the FexEx logo, once you notice her contortions, you can never “unsee” them.
Stack left his perch and picked up a bass (one that Wasner tweeted was the same one he played in middle school) prior to their new song for the Adult Swim Singles program: “Spiral.” If this “Run Like Hell”-esque psychedelic/krautrock number is indicative of a new direction, I’m eager to hear what other new material they have in store, whenever they get around to releasing a new album.
Fan favorites “Take It In” from The Knot and “Dog Eyes” from Civilian also made appearances. One sign-wielding superfan—his poster read, “I LOVE JENN…AND THAT GUY”—was rebuffed in his attempt to hear rarity “Siamese.” Wasner blushed at her guitar heroine status, but promised they’d learn it before they play the Black Cat next month.
A little after 10:30, four of the six members of the Dirty Projectors took the stage and started into the atonal “Maybe That Was It.” The song features Longstreth’s warped guitar work and his strained, obtuse voice. I suppose it’s fitting that a so-called “experimental rock” group would queue up an annoying, anti-pop song. Maybe that internet goober was right. Maybe the Projectors are artsy-fartsy hipster malarkey.
Nope—he’s was full of shit. My second-night strategy succeeded when Dekle and Bell joined Coffman and the three male members and performed “When The World Comes To An End,” a song originally written for Mount Wittenberg Orca, a charity EP with Bjork. The ping-ponging vocal fluctuations between the three ladies would make Tune-Yards jealous. Considering the complexity of the song—each woman sounds like as if they’re alternating vowel sounds as Longstreth strains the verses—I can understand why it is rarely played, but I’m pleased to have lucked out.
The Projectors played a majority of songs off their new record, including the easy-going “About To Die” and the raucous, Pixies-esque quietLOUDquiet “Offspring Are Blank.” Coffman took lead vocals on “The Socialites,” strutting around the stage, her impressive vocal abilities offsetting her ungraceful dance moves. The trademark three-part harmony was again featured on “Beautiful Mother,” another Bjork collaboration. The women juggled one another’s chirps as Coffman sang, “We are swimming in a simple rhythm / We are swimming in a rhythm as the same voice.”
Noticing Wye Oak lording over the group from the balcony, Longstreth mimed assassinating them (“Let’s reverse John Wilkes booth it”) before dedicating Bitte Orca’s lead track, “Cannibal Resource” to their tour mates. The aptly named “Gun Has No Trigger” was a high point, as the audience sang along with the karaoke-ready single: “But now the banks all closed / And nothing gets bigger /The crowd will yell / But the gun has no trigger.”
Coffman and Longstreth told the audience that there was a competition to see which of the two performances would have the most energy. Their tone implied that Night 2 was losing, and the responsive cheers helped rally the crowd through the boisterous “Useful Chamber” (one of the most rocking song in their canon) and through the meta “Unto Caesar,” as the three women teased Longstreth his opaque lyrics while crooning along obediently. Not to brag, but before they left the stage, they informed the audience that we were the better of the two audiences.
As the evening neared midnight, the group returned for an encore of “Dance With You,” “Stillness Is The Move,” and “Impregnable Question.” “Move” remains the group’s most accessible song, with Coffman’s piping vocals reaching heights unparalleled by most contemporary indie rock singers. Dave Longstreth may be Dirty Projectors’ mastermind, but the group wouldn’t be any different than the myriad of other generic, cerebral pop bands from Brooklyn without the considerable skills of his hyper-talented sea mammals.