July 12, 2004

The Dirty Projectors "Slaves' Graves & Ballads"

Connecticut weirdo Dave Longstreth is one talented and prolific man. Last year’s solo debut under the Dirty Projectors moniker, The Glad Fact, perfected its fusion of Captain Beefheart’s chaos-theory blues-rock and Tiny Tim’s tiki-lounge crooning so well that it managed to make my Top Twenty list in spite of its hideous frontal-nudity album cover. Longstreth’s performance at this year’s South by Southwest was another curveball. It consisted mainly of him gyrating wildly around a laptop as he sung songs from a yet-to-be released “glitch opera.” Most of the people in attendance were there to hear Glad Fact songs but, although he did perform some, he was three albums ahead of the audience and had clearly moved on. After languishing for many months in developmental limbo, Longstreth’s third album in two years, Slaves’ Graves and Ballads, is finally here. The fact that it’s such a huge step forward from even The Glad Fact only makes me wonder how much farther out his “glitch opera” will sound once it is released, and how many more albums of even weirder stuff he’ll make until then! Slaves’ Graves and Ballads may already be old news to Dave, but everyone ELSE is going to have their minds blown.

This isn’t as much of an album as it is a compilation of two separate EPs. The first half of the album, Slaves’ Graves, was recorded with a 10-piece orchestra that Dave founded and conducted himself. However, don’t even think that this is some Polyphonic Left Banke stuff you’re dealing with. The arrangements are sophisticated enough to transcend the concept of rock entirely, and the printed lyric sheet reads like a six-stanza poem by a 19th-century English romantic. Opening track “Somberly, Kimberly” is a spoken-word piece about how decay can be found in the most youthful of faces, and calm can be found in the noisiest of places. On this song, a childlike, twinkling marimba is juxtaposed with booming tom-toms that sound like God Himself stomping mud holes into the Earth.

From that point, Slaves’ Graves launches into a series of songs filled with transitions too abrupt to be the result of anything but painstaking rehearsals or precise studio edits. “(Throw On) the Hazard Lights” shifts from a Bartok-meets-ragtime intro to solo voice and acoustic guitar, climaxing with an orchestral frenzy that is run through horrible over-modulation, producing in the listener the same sort of sensory overload
that comes from…well, having hazard lights being thrown on in your
face. Upon first listening to this song, this site’s editor thought the distorted coda was a pressing error. However, “Hazard Lights” is reprised at the end of Slaves’ Graves, with its coda played note-for-note without the distortion, proving once and for all that Dave truly knows what he’s doing. Through it all, his voice wanders through outlandish intervals and multi-tracked harmonies with just as much aplomb as the orchestra that backs him up. Lyrically, the songs call for a return to nature with a poetic flair that would make William Wordsworth proud. “Like aerospace
umbilical cords,” Dave sings, “we will consume the universe” (“Grandfather’s Hanging”). On “Hanging” and “On the Beach,“ the sun is portrayed as an unyielding force that exposes the flaws in all manmade creations.

The album’s second half, Ballads, is a return to the acoustic
format of the Glad Fact, but with a noticeable increase in catchiness and compositional skill. “Unmoved” echoes the first half’s sentiments regarding the unchanging course of nature, but otherwise, the subject matter on Ballads is a bit more earthbound. “Because Your Light Is Turning Green” is an admonition for those who have gotten ahead in life to reach out and help those who have fallen behind, and it’s written and performed with
the same plainspoken, folksy tenderness that informs the Beatles’
Rubber Soul. “Obscure Wisdom” is Dave’s brief attempt to convince a girl to spend the night with him instead of going back to her home in Manhattan. Most of the other Ballads are mantra-like ruminations on sadness (“This Weather”) and emotional disconnect (“Since I Opened”). Even though these songs are carried out with little more that Dave’s voice and guitar, they are just as unhinged and engaging as the songs on Slaves’ Graves.

The stripped-down format of Ballads forces the listener to
reckon with Dave’s voice, which never fails to hit at least one terribly sour note per song, but also never fails to pull off at least one melodic run per song that is too complicated to sound accidental, even when coming from a voice as untrained as his. Regardless of which side of the album you listen to, you’ll be faced with some of the most creative and challenging music released so far this year. Longstreth’s imagination is so boundless, his songwriting skills so uncontestable, that after listening to Slaves’ Graves and Ballads, you’ll feel as if he’s truly capable of anything he sets his mind to.

All I know is that Phil Elvrum (of the Microphones) had better watch
his back, because he is about to get seriously 0wn3d

--Sean Padilla

Label Website: http://www.westernvinyl.com
Artist Website: http://www.statesrightsrecords.com/thedirtyprojectors

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