Wednesday, July 18, 2018

album review: 'lamp lit prose' by dirty projectors

So stop me if you've heard this one: a rock band breaks out in the mid-2000s, releases a critically acclaimed record in the last few years of the decade... and then abruptly, everything seems to go awry, as what many critics perceive as the greatest draw of the group depart, leaving a solo frontman who decides to double down on his own ego and talents under the band name for an increasingly pronounced pop pivot with questionable returns...

But enough about Panic! At The Disco, we're here to review Dirty Projectors, right? And the parallels aren't that exact - Dirty Projectors managed to get a second well-received record off of Bitte Orca with Swing Lo Magellan before a sizable chunk of the band quit, even if my opinions on the band remain pretty mixed to this day - but the more I thought about it the more it kind of fit in a twisted way. Hell, delve into the songwriting and it's not hard to see similarities between David Longstreth and Brendon Urie in wildly overwritten ego-driven posturing, especially in the face of Urie losing his entire band and Longstreth facing the departure of both Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman, whose unique harmonies would probably be highlighted as the most distinctive facet of the band to any casual fan. And then you have to look at them both doubling down on long-standing influences, with Urie focusing on musical theater and vintage pop and Longstreth stepping into a weird R&B/indie pop blend on a self-titled project that may have been passable but felt way more awkward and uncomfortable than it should have, especially in the content. But hey, now Longstreth is looking in a more positive, upbeat direction with an album cover that seems to be openly aping Bitte Orca - a loaded callback if there is one - so hopefully this would connect more strongly, right?

Honestly, I can't say that it does - and somehow the Brendon Urie comparison became even more prophetic, because Longstreth's shuddering steps towards increasingly sanitized blue-eyed soul is along a similar musical line. But even that is not a complete description of the weird tones of Lamp Lit Prose - part twee coffeeshop folk, part early 80s R&B, part increasingly unstable trip back to the well of Bitte Orca, and part slice of vintage pop with fat horns and arranged elements with compositional nods to Bjork. And even being charitable, I can't say it all really comes together, partially because the alchemy of a record like Bitte Orca is fiendishly difficult to recreate, and the final results of Lamp Lit Prose can feel just as awkward as the self-titled release, just with more space and room to face-plant in the street.

And look, I'll freely admit part of this is on me because I was really trying to get past my issues with Longstreth's delivery here, which is half weedy falsetto with little tightness, half squawking Dylan impression that's only really tolerable when supplemented by a firmer groundswell of multi-tracking or guest stars - although with the case of an artist like Syd on 'Right Now', she sounds like she'd rather be anywhere else. Granted, part of that might have more to do with the underlying composition itself - we'll come back to this - and when you get something with a little more guitar-driven bounce obviously cribbing from Michael Jackson like 'I Feel Energy', Amber Mark is a solid counterpart to Longstreth, even if I wish she was given a bit more to do. Similar case for Empress Of on 'Zombie Conqueror' and Dear Nora on the warping jazz touches of '(I Wanna) Feel It All', but in the latter case she's stuck with Longstreth trying to sell restrained smoothness in his lower register and he's not convincing whatsoever. Then there's the multi-part harmonies with Rostam and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes on 'You're The One', which Longstreth has said is going for a Three Tenors vibe but what comes off to me something closer to an early 90s acoustic hair metal ballad with less intensity!

But the more listens I gave Lamp Lit Prose the more it felt like David Longstreth doesn't seem to want to be a solo act, or at least wants someone to sing harmony like the female backing vocals on 'That's A Lifestyle' - and frankly, I don't blame him for that one bit, because when you take a look at the production and compositions, it's hard to ignore the sense that he's flailing. And look, the Dirty Projectors were never the most abrasive or aggressive band in indie rock, but Longstreth's flirtation with hip-hop grooves and percussion did not help him on the self-titled release and it's failing him again here, especially with no co-producer. None of the percussion has significant body or low-end presence, the clash with more organic arranged tones is increasingly jarring with the brighter melodies and mixing, and there's little texture or grit to speak of to add something to make it mesh more cleanly together - and that's before I tell you throughout significant chunks of this record we're lucky to get a bass groove at all! Granted, every instrument in the mix has the too-clean feel of getting scraped to its most tinny and blaring tone, and when you pair it with compositions that already feel picked over and stiff, it leads to songs like 'Right Now' feeling incredibly stiff and blocky, with admittedly impressive acoustic picking just sloppily layered opposite the beat, flat synths, and picking taps, and that's before the trumpets squeal in. And if you think those are awkward choices, it's followed by the gargled guitar and harmonica blasting through 'Break-Thru', or how 'Blue Bird' brings in recorders, muted keys, and a full horns section with prominent tuba to contrast with the percussion that's almost trying to be too eclectic and quirky! But you see, that's part of the point, so when that beat is thrown slapdash and louder than the electric guitar trying to build sizzle and melody on 'I Found It In U', it's supposed to feel loose and free-spirited and joyously messy... but it's all too brittle and lacking foundational groove to get that feeling. That's not saying there aren't songs with groove - again, for as much as 'I Feel Energy' is ripping off Michael Jackson it kind of has to have it - but for as many horns are layered onto 'What Is The Time', it doesn't fit with the jittery drum machine, and maybe it's not the best idea to play with tonal contrast between organic and electronic elements when you don't texture to accentuate similarities or have a stable foundation for any of it!

And then we get to the lyrics, and I'll give Longstreth this, he's outright said that there's no larger thematic conceit with the tunes here, that indeed the record is more just a collection of songs - fine by me. But as someone who has never found Longstreth a great songwriter - less impressionistic as some have described and more just reaching for poetry that starts crumbling with any deeper thought - I'm not all that impressed by what he's going for here. 'Break-Thru' is a good example of this - it's about wooing your disaffected hipster dream girl who is keeping it '100 in the shade' - which I've seen some call out as a reference to a 1963 musical 110 in the Shade but is more likely a call to current slang - but the line that throws me is how she's 'hanging out all Julian Casablanacas' - and while there might have been some effortless cool in The Strokes' early years, any current interviews or anything he's done with The Voidz shows how bafflingly out-of-place the reference is within the context of the song. And when you combine it with the weird pileup of classical references, it shows a songwriter scrabbling for descriptors that sound interesting on their face but don't coalesce. Then there's 'That's a Lifestyle', a scattershot song trying to take aim at the older generation and political party in power - even though Longstreth is in his mid-to-late 30s - and my impression that the song is operating on at least some degree of sarcastic detachment, especially with the first pre-chorus damn near mimicking Halsey's 'New Americana' and the third verse playing for a very 'both sides, live and live' veneer that's not at all matched by his more earnest delivery - Dylan could pull off sardonic contempt, Longstreth, you can't! Honestly, the record gets a fair bit better when Longstreth gets out of his own head and sticks with simpler love or dance songs like 'I Feel Energy' or 'Blue Bird' or even 'You're The One', although the poetry of songs like 'Zombie Conqueror' with his tattered khakis or how the universe became his mom and dad on 'I Found It In U' still shows an alarming penchant for awkward embarrassment - it's that similar juxtaposition of language aiming for both grand but contemporary and when it doesn't feel like an awkward overreach, it's just slapdash. And that's not counting points that just feel oddly pompous, like how certain he is of the love to come on 'What Is The Time', delivered as if he buys every word. 

So look folks, if you're enamored with David Longstreth's inexplicable cult of personality and have followed him this far, you'll likely find this tolerable - maybe a little cornier and sloppier than usual but for brighter material you'll get what you expect. But for me... look, going back a good six years I've said the Dirty Projectors were a band where the over-arranged artifice just can't conceal a lack of deeper nuance, which is why I would tend to be more tolerant of the more straightforward pop cuts if they didn't feel so slapdash in their foundation. At the end of the day, as much as I like Bitte Orca this is a record that can't possibly measure up despite the callbacks, which nets it a solid 5/10 and only a recommendation for the diehard fans. At this point, I can confidently say they're not for me, but even for the fans, I'm curious with increasingly diminished returns how long they'll stick around.

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