How Doo-Wop Unlocks The New Album By Dirty Projectors

Jul 10, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 6:46 pm

One of my favorite albums of the year so far is also by of the most polarizing bands amongst All Songs Considered fans. I know this because at a recent All Songs Considered listening party in the band's hometown of New York, I played a song from Dirty Projectors' new record, Swing Lo Magellan, and asked the audience to rate the song with numbered cards. I saw some high scores — a few 10s and nines — but also a lot of twos, threes and fours. One person described the vocals as "Bert and Ernie-ish," though, surprisingly, she gave it a 10. Another person said, "I hated it ... and I like some annoying singers, but I couldn't stand the voice." The voice he was talking about in this case is band-leader Dave Longstreth.

Dirty Projectors songs are filled with unexpected sounds and sparse, unusual beats. Their albums are all over the map. Often, songs ping-pong from style to style — not just from album cut to album cut, but within a song. But I think the vocals are the bands most prominent signature. And they are what intrigues me most about this new album, Swing Lo Magellan, but also obviously what's off-putting and unfriendly. But sometimes all we need is a reference point, a touchstone to guide us down adventurous musical paths. I'll give you what worked for me in a moment, but first listen to the song here.

The song is, "Offspring Are Blank," and it's the lead-off track from the new Dirty Projectors album, (which comes out today, by the way) and it's also my favorite song of the year so far.

After hearing it, and in particular the voices, the harmony, the hand claps or whatever that clacking sound is ... I ripped a four-CD set of doo-wop music I own into my iTunes library and drove around listening to it and the Dirty Projectors record whenever I could.

Listen to this excerpt from the opening of "Offspring Are Blank":

Then listen to this song, "Mio Amore ('Till The End Of Time)," by The Flamingos:

I'm not saying these songs sound the same, but I do think they're both drawn from the same pool of inspiration. Dirty Projectors swing less than The Flamingos; the subject matter is oblique and poetic. "Offspring" may be a love song, but it feels more genetic than romantic:

There was a single one
Then there were ten
When ten made a hundred
And a hundred million

He was made to love her
She was made to love him
And their offspring loved them
And in the marriage of eagle and snake
The parents are fertile
But the offspring is blank

The Flamingos offer a familiar, a more classic love song:

Take my lips and a-kiss them (take my love)
Take my hands and a-hold them
I am yours, my love, 'til the end of time

The unfamiliar lyrics and the gigantic shift in the Dirty Projectors song, that feeling that you can't quite grab onto the tune, it's nothing that repeated listening won't cure. It's how pop music evolves: The unfamiliar becomes the standard or the new backbone. It just takes time and repetition.

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