The Dirty Projectors of 2012 is a vastly different band from the Dirty Projectors that last played in Pittsburgh — at Garfield Artworks, way back in April of 2006. For one thing, the band, led by David Longstreth, had yet to add the vocals and guitar work of Amber Coffman, who's become a major player since. For another, it had yet to break out as a real buzz band; that came with 2009's Bitte Orca, on Domino Records.
In 2006, fresh off the release of the New Attitude EP, Longstreth and company were focused on dynamics and rhythmic weirdness, and played to a room of a couple dozen, while sitting in chairs on the floor instead of the stage and using no microphones. It was probably the ideal way to see the band at the time — but Coffman says a lot has changed since then.
"There are more stripped-down moments," she explains, "but in the past few years, we've really been a pretty loud rock band. The Rise Above tour was really heavy, loud, aggressive." (In 2007, the band released a record in which Longstreth composed from memory some unique covers of the Black Flag album Rise Above, under the same name.)
Bitte Orca saw the band taking on heavier orchestration — a full string section at points. It was a wildly popular album, critically acclaimed and near the top of a lot of year-end best-of lists. With the band's latest, Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors took it back down a notch: The record relies largely on the band's signature lush vocal harmonies for its depth.
"I think this time around, Dave just really wanted to focus on writing songs," Coffman says. He did so — for about a year — in an upstate New York house where the record was recorded, with the band's other members stopping by from time to time. "We weren't all up there at the same time much at all," Coffman explains, noting that several of the band's members tour solo or with other acts.
Swing Lo mixes the band's characteristic abstract esotericism and unexpected melodic patterns with some effects that might best be deemed the closest Dirty Projectors will get to lo-fi. There's throat-clearing (literally) on the rocking opener "Offspring Are Blank," and amateurish (but still spot-on) backing vocals, claps, ad-libs and background noise on "Unto Caesar." Yes: Dirty Projectors cut loose now and then.
For every moment on Swing Lo Magellan that seems to approach standard pop structure and ease, there's a jarring rhythmic mix-up or unexpected melodic step. It's part and parcel of the Longstreth package, and what's made him a polarizing figure in indie rock: As a composer, he's never satisfied to simply make a catchy tune.
"I think Dave makes some choices that are to challenge himself and to challenge people," Coffman says. All the same, she says, "I think some of the songs on the new album are pretty straightforward."
As for the band's live show — well, it's bound to be new to many of us, even if we saw Dirty Projectors the last time they were in town.
"If you haven't seen us since then," Coffman says, "I'm excited for you to see the band! It'll be a lot different."