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Dirty Projectors
The Getty Address

Western Vinyl

etro gets a bad rap. OK, sure, there are more than a few groups that coast on inherited style in place of content, and you might very well be able to scientifically prove that, at this point in history, no one can write a garage-rock or "psychedelic" or "old-skool rap" song that is both a) new and b) good. (I don't think you could, but never mind; the possibility is certainly there.)

But despite these overexposed abuses, there's a whole ocean of styles out there that lie dormant and unrealized, restrained both by musicians' fear of appearing "unoriginal" (a fear stoked by critics' narrow-minded influence-pegging and old fogies' need to preserve the myth of authenticity surrounding their favorite groups from their youth) and the styles' own inaccessibility. While we could harp on about the former problem forever, the Dirty Projectors' new album The Getty Address overcomes the second in such interesting ways that I'm actually not going to spend 500 words rehashing an argument we've already had, and won.

Getty does sound retro to me, although I'm aware that most people wouldn't necessarily agree. The comparable contemporary album would be Sufjan Stevens' Greetings From Michigan, whose retroism is more apparent, especially in the tracks evoking filmstrip soundtracks. But this is simply because its musical antecedents have paved mainstream inroads via the educational-film route. Both seem to take a healthy dose of inspiration from high art. Where Stevens' album drew from the best elements of fusion as well as American composers such as Copland, the Projectors prefer their jazz a bit more aged, going back to bop, and their art music a bit more modern, sounding at times like Steve Reich backed by an elementary music-appreciation class wielding a drawer full of percussion. And where Stevens filters his highbrow influences through indie-folk, the Projectors turn theirs into laptop pop.

But although the referents are different, the essential formulation is no different from, say, dance-punk: inspired by the specific sound of an overlooked earlier era, a new sound is created by combining it (or an artist's individual interpretation of it) with varying amounts of the sounds that have followed and the creator's interior soundtrack. This is in no way a flawed working model, despite the negative results that have accrued to it like barnacles on a ship's underbelly: it's just that, working within the common musical setups, it's a lot harder to come up with the kind of sounds we find on The Getty Address. The particular tonalities of a wind ensemble or female choral group are familiar to us, but difficult to reproduce with a laptop or band.

Thankfully, the Dirty Projectors have done just this. Main member Dave Longstreth wrote and recorded musical arrangements for traditional conservatory groups (wind septet, cello octet—uh, OK, so more like semi-traditional) but, as the copious liner notes inform us, later became dissatisfied with these, and ended up chopping and rearranging the existing recorded parts to make the finished album. The results are hard to describe, at least in the usual rock-crit terms. There are broken-up, sampled horn hits, but they aren't the blaring soul riffs we're familiar with; there are cooing female vocals, but they share little similarity with girl-group oohs and ahs (if I had to peg it to something familiar, I'd have to say recent John Williams scores, except that sounds like an insult). All of this is overlain with cello and sax drones, occasionally manic kick drum/timbales/shaker percussion, and Longstreth's own keening, recitative-ish vocal lines, with repetitive, occasionally narrative lyrics.

And oh, about those lyrics. We are told (cue the liner notes again) that this is a rock opera about Don Henley, the European conquest of America, Dave's brother, and...well, you get the idea. At this point I have to pull out another highbrow reference: they're a lot like the eternally frustrating "artist's statements" that accompany the majority of visual art these days, which can over-explain in ways that obscure the work itself. But Longstreth's notes (I assume they're his—they seem a bit too involved and not quite self-aggrandizing enough to be a publicist's) are so clearly ridiculous (sample: "the offbeat eh eh eh eh cut-up sound is the katydids' rhythmic bristling. The women's layered voices are, of course, the motherfucking finches.") and effectively unrelated to anything actually going on within the album that they simply become an additional work to consider, and they are, indeed, enjoyable enough to read that they are wholly justified.

So is this, in fact, a rock opera about Don Henley etc.? Damned if I know. On the one hand, I could tell you that if I had more time to live with the album, to say nothing of an actual lyric sheet, I might be able to parse something about the Eagles and Cortez, but on the other hand I can't, in good conscience, tell you that the album would reward such a close examination. It might and it might not; certainly the liner notes don’t shy away from the distinct possibility that it's all a joke. (Though a good one, and there's certainly nothing wrong with jokes, but, I mean, on a track called "Gilt Gold Scabs," the women's choir repeats the word "kangaroo" about thirty times.) Having lived with it for a few weeks now, it's certainly interesting, but I don't know how often I would want to listen to it unless doing so for the purposes of a review. Still, it seems like the kind of thing that's worth listening to once, if the evidence offered here intrigues you at all, because you might very well love it. That's certainly well within the realm of possibility—despite the beardy references I've been throwing around, it's undeniably a pop album, constructed out of a desire to sound good rather than to achieve deliberate complexity or difficulty—I’m just not even confident I like it. I certainly wouldn't mind other people liking it, though, and I would especially enjoy hearing other musicians taking the adventurous influences Longstreth explores and expanding them, mixing more and more overlooked styles of music with the pop we love and turning out something beautiful—which The Getty Address most certainly is.

Reviewed by: Michael Barthel

Reviewed on: 2005-05-03

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