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Dirty Projectors: Balls Deep in the R&B

This band once covered the entirety of Black Flag’s
    Damaged.

Sarah CassThis band once covered the entirety of Black Flag’s Damaged.

“The vine of melody upon the lattice of rhythm, yeah!” says David Longstreth. “[R ’n’ B] is balls-deep in my pool of inspiration.”

It’s the kind of thing that the Dirty Projectors’ mad mastermind should’ve shouted out whilst smacking an empty shot glass down onto some crusty bar, or delivered with aplomb followed by a crude thrust of the hips. In our very own Scrubs moment, I would’ve high-fived him and coolly sung the chorus of some crux D’Angelo song (probably “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker”) before the two of us decided to call off the interview and just be BFFs 4-eva.

Turns out we’re about pinky-deep in an interview taking place via text message. I’ve asked Longstreth about the influence of ’90s

R ’n’ B — D’Angelo, Mariah Carey, R. Kelly — on his band’s remarkably soulful new album, Bitte Orca, and whether or not his love for the form extends beyond that era. Bzzzzzzzz. Bzzzzzzzz. Evidently, he’s concluded his thoughts on the matter: “Re: era-specific, not eally [sic], from Marilyn to Madonna, always loved that smile.” Sigh.

Fault not the artist for his eccentric ways. It’s wholly possible that Longstreth is fucking with me, and such behavior isn’t out of character for the Brooklyn art-rock savant. The picture that’s emerged of Longstreth the bandleader is that of a driven taskmaster whose vision is prescient enough to justify the quirks. In a recent New York Times piece, Projectorette Amber Coffman described basement rehearsals lasting as long as 12 hours, adding eerily, “Dave pushes you beyond where you thought you could go ... at the end of it you are realizing a new level of capability within yourself.”

Furthermore, most of his interviews bear the mark of e-mail correspondence: an abundance of exclamation points punctuating glib replies that go mostly unchallenged. For instance, when I text to ask him a three-part question having to do with his decision to give singers Coffman and Angel Deradoorian their own songs on Bitte Orca (respectively: the husky Nico-esque “Two Doves,” and the melisma-dripping single, “Stillness Is the Move”), Longstreth offers the following:

“I wanted to draw out [the women] themselves, because they’re great!”

I reply, “But specifically, tell me about crafting the songs to match their characters.”

Bzzzzzzzz.Bzzzzzzzz. (Text alert:) “Yes! Amber needed a banger and Angel a pillow.”

Our exchange is the result of two days of cat-and-mouse, and as it turns out, I wasn’t the only hunter. Bitte Orca has been earning hyperbolic praise from tastemakers, who have lined up to declare it one of the best albums of the year, and have anointed Longstreth as a Great Pop Hope. Day one comprised a spare few moments voice-to-voice — wherein Longstreth politely requested an hour’s delay to account for breakfast — and a whole boatload of text-tag. He played hooky for our next two phone dates. I dialed his publicist, only to learn I was having better luck than she at eliciting a response. Online, I discovered a colleague of mine experiencing the same frustrations with Longstreth, only he’d been streaming live vitriol about it via Twitter, culminating in an exasperated “FUCK. THIS. GUY.” In reality-TV terms, it appeared I was a survivor. My friend never did get his interview.

The thing is, Longstreth can blow off as many journalists as he sees fit (or eventually strong-arm them into a text chat — “It’ll be like a slow, unfurling convo,” he promised). It’s not going to change the possibility that the dude has, against considerably stiff competition, created the year’s best album. Bitte Orca lithely moves through a glut of ideas that should be about as easy to swallow as a double-wide granola bar, and yet these nine songs go down smooth without a hint of filler. In “Temecula Sunrise,” West-African guitar phrases and Longstreth’s histrionic-prone vocals execute jagged climbs over a pliable bed of neo-soul. “The Bride” moves from lilting acoustic folk to tough guitar rock to choral excellence and back again. Album touchstone “Useful Chamber,” with its bizarre synth/vocal interplay, electronic chug and eventual release, is just unbelievably graceful.

Asked whether he gives any credence to the idea that, as Pitchfork suggested in its review of Bitte Orca, this album represents a truce finally reached between Longstreth the composer and Longstreth the pop songsmith, the head Projector texts back, “There’s no difference! I got no idea. It’s the omnivore’s dilemma .” It’s a brief answer that could be construed as dismissive, but it also seems quite pithy. When I ask if he set out to make a more accessible album this time around, he responds with a similarly resonant irreverence: “Inspirations only to touch the flaming dove!”

Longstreth has maintained this “theory” on inspiration long enough to defend against allegations of being a ruthless deconstructionist. We should probably just start believing him. Even so, it can be tough to imagine anyone’s muse naturally leading him to an album (2005’s The Getty Address) that takes Don Henley as its protagonist and leads him through a tale referencing both the fall of the Aztecs and 9/11. Equally challenging is the idea that 2007’s Rise Above emerged as Longstreth’s attempt to recreate Black Flag’s Damaged, a favorite record of his teenage years, completely from memory. He hasn’t made it easy to fall in love with Dirty Projectors — until now.

This new record is different. It’s also the same. Those distracting high concepts (since done away with) were ultimately always subordinate to what was going on aurally, and Bitte Orca basks freely in the weird little musical meanderings that made earlier Projectors releases promising but difficult. The album shows no overt signs of wanting to play in the mainstream, and yet it is accessible and sports not one, but two killer singles. “Temecula” and “Stillness” are arguably even easier to love than recent submissions from Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective. To toss in yet another artsy Brooklyn band (with whom DP just toured), Bitte Orca is as exciting as TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain, but as listenable as that band’s 2008 release, Dear Science.

It’s been a big year for Longstreth, who’s collaborated with both David Byrne and Björk in the past months. He and the Talking Heads founder co-wrote two songs for Red Hot’s recent Dark Was the Night compilation (“Knotty Pine” made it on; “Ambulance Man” became a B-side), and performed them live at Radio City Music Hall on May 3. Not five days later, for New York’s Housing Works charity, Dirty Projectors and Björk performed a seven-part vocal suite that Longstreth composed specifically for the occasion (in 10 days, no less). Considering each of these luminaries’ long-running commitment to pushing musical boundaries, I ask Longstreth if he soaked up some gravitas in the process.

“There was no excellence groomed and maintained,” he writes back, “just an undeniable, almost awkward kind of presence — very cool.”

“What was one thing you learned from working with them?” I reply.

Bzzzzzzzz. Bzzzzzzzz. “Say something else,” he replies, rejecting my question.

If David Longstreth is the obsessive intellectual he’s often accused of being, all of this might be a bit too much for potential fans to bear — an existential clusterfuck of pretty supreme proportions. And that might be why he’s hesitant to get on the phone. On the other hand, if Longstreth fits the label of blindly indulgent egoist that he’s also frequently saddled with, he’s most likely having a field day, running around wide-eyed through a wonderland of his own haphazard design. Though I feel a little slighted by the text absurdity, I’ll argue for the latter on the basis of a glimpse of that happy fool in a message received on day one of this interview adventure: “I’m really sorry. Soundcheck turned into a big jam with Vieux Farka Touré! Can we talk tomorrow?” Who would I be to shoot down the flaming dove?

The Dirty Projectors perform at the Troubadour on Wednesday, July 8.