Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Magellan Songbag

I've already blogged some thoughts on why Dirty Projectors' new record Swing Lo Magellan is a masterpiece on the order of Sgt. Pepper or Blood on the Tracks; roughly a week and several listens later, I remain as obsessed with it as I've ever been by any work by anyone. And it strikes me that a huge part of why it's worth it for me to keep plumbing the record for its intricacies of design, arrangement, and production is that it's simply a great bunch of tunes; I'm a song man above most everything else. I respond to groove and timber and instrumentation, but if a songwriter can't also shape an interesting, surprising melody and harmony, I don't much care about the rest.

And with Magellan, lead Projector Dave Longstreth has simply created a trove of amazingly distinctive tunes; he reportedly secluded himself in a cabin to concentrate specifically on songcraft, which is a trick that also led to Bruce Springsteen's best album. All due respect to the Boss, though, as peerless as that bunch of songs is, they don't hold a candle to Longstreth's output here. The range and fecundity of his melodic/harmonic gift is simply astounding.

Indeed, there's only one song out of the record's dozen that I would count as melodically average, though it has other compensatory virtues. And really, the only way I can dig into the joys of SLM's melodies is to sample them all for you. Here goes...

1. Offspring Are Blank. First, I should revise something I said in my earlier Magellan post: Longstreth in fact has begun to write real choruses for many of his songs. The opener is a fine example. First comes the verse melody, which snakes up and down over some prickly minor-modal intervals:

That gets another iteration, then there's an ascending pre-chorus...into a head-banging major-key chorus, in a time signature I can't quite parse:

An arresting opener, to say the least, though not quite characteristic of the record to come.

2. About To Die. Much more than the opener, this is a handy summation of the Magellan sound, which might be called major-key sunshine with scattered showers and hovering clouds. This one is mostly major all the way, starting with its weird, beguiling verse, which has three measures or 3/4, a single of 2/4, then six of 4/4:

The joyous chorus alternates consecutive-note runs and chordal leaps, climaxing with the ecstatic title line:

There's even a delightful bridge with an unmistakable Songs in the Key of Life flavor (the low unison strings as well as the vocal melisma):

3. Gun Has No Trigger. I spent some time on this in my previous post. I don't have much to add except to say that this is a remarkable example of a long-line composition; there is no verse or chorus here, just one long 25-bar melody of soaring, minor-to-major majesty. It's the album's greatest piece of songcraft, and it can only be reproduced in full.

(By the bye, those last two bars of major-key choralizing over a throbbing bass suggests, to these ears at least, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.")

4. Swing Lo Magellan. Again, a highlight I covered in my last post, with a special emphasis on its unmistakable early-mid-period Dylan influences. Like "Gun" (and like a fair number of Dylan tunes, actually), it's not a verse/chorus structure but one long shape; amid the pointed simplicity of the arrangements and the guitar-based harmonies, I would only point out the odd spaces in the melody (a recurring habit on this record), and note that at bars 10 and 11 (on the words "against the sky" and "a point of light"), and then in the last three bars (14, 15, and 16, on the words "invisible," "give itself," and "naked eye"), the chords change on the second rather than the first beat of the measure, for a gently jolting effect:

5. Just From Chevron. An epic more on the order of some of the sprawling, complicated tunes of Bitte Orca, but with the higher tunefulness quotient that distinguishes Magellan. We start with a verse melody of folk-like simplicity, and also authentically folk-like oddness; a strange but entirely convincing pause in measure 7 makes this a 9-bar form (or 10-bar, if you count an extra "breather" measure at the end), rather than a standard 8-bar form:

Dave Longstreth's take on the same verse melody:

Here's his anguished chorus, distinctive not just for its flailing-in-circles melody but the extraordinary fractal-spray guitar part it's whorling in counterpoint with:

6. Dance for You. Another resolutely major-key song. I actually prefer this jaunty, confident verse, over a guitar part that reminds me of vintage Liz Phair...

(subtly reharmonized on its second iteration, by the way)

...to the equivocal chorus, whose final cadence (the title line) is the album's only flirtation with saccharine rather than genuine sweetness, to my ears:

As some kind of compensation, though, there is this brief orchestral flight, followed by a Fripp-esque two-track guitar solo, one of only a few such on the album.

7. Maybe That Was It. The album's only really abstrusely arty song is another long-line composition that's hard to take apart into component parts. It's also such a difficult song, time-signature-wise, that it initially reminded me of Radiohead's seemingly free-time "Pyramid Song" (which apparently someone has figured out). I caught myself humming the whole meandering, eccentric, yearning melody the other day, so I knew it was parse-able; and this morning on the train I think I finally cracked it. I hear the form as 3/4, 5/4, 3/4; then an instrumental fill of 4/4, 4/4, 5/4; repeat all; then there's a 4/4 measure for the title line, followed by four measures of 4/4. The eventual arrival at that even meter, I think, accounts for the relieving sense of a journey completed:

8. Impregnable Question. Like the album's title tune, a really naked, unadorned piece, and even moreso in its straightforward lyrics. I'm struck here, again, by the curiously unfilled pauses in the melody, which manage to convey a confident lack of hurry and open-hearted comfort (listen after "It would help to seek..." and "comfort in destiny..."):

9. See What She Seeing. Like "About to Die," another forward-leaping major-key joy, though with a sunnier, more straightforward lyrical theme. The verse melody, which I read one critic compare to McCartney, at first reminded me a little of Kid A, but that's probably just the frowsy synth accompaniment. I'd agree that this is worthy of Sir Paul at his best:

The next bit, though technically a chorus, blooms from what came before so naturally that the whole thing feels like one long-line composition:

10. The Socialites. There's been a fair amount written about the Projectors' homages to R&B (and the props coming right back), but apart from the last album's "Stillness Is the Move" and the stray bit of melisma (like "About To Die's" Stevie Wonder moment above), I don't hear it very strongly. This lovely solo by Amber Coffman is obviously an exception. What makes it work for me is the underselling, not only by Coffman vocally but in the tinkling, harplike thumb-piano arrangement. This doesn't sound like white hipsters trying to throw their weight around in a traditionally black form; instead, it's almost self-consciously delicate, twee, baroque. The verse consists of just this melody four times:

And then this oddly downcast chorus, which befits the reluctant schadenfreude of the lyric:

As I noted above, there are more proper choruses on this album than I'd initially thought, but one thing there aren't very many of are bridges. Here's one:

11. Unto Caesar. This harks back more to Dirty Projectors songs of old, where the emphasis has been on cultivating furrows of accompanimental complexity more than on seeding singable tunes per se. Our first cue is this sprightly, offhandedly complicated opening:

And though this is a thoroughly adequate and likeable verse, it's simply not as inspired as the others on the record:

An altered second verse then leads directly into a slam-dunk chorus in which the descending sax hook manages to be catchier than the vocal line:

But in lieu of great melodies, "Unto Caesar" brings a loose party vibe that's almost entirely new for the Projectors (at least on record—I've never had the pleasure of seeing them live), and this soon gives the song over to a series of a calls-and-responses, whoops and hollers. It's utterly disarming, an unexpected romp, and a high-profile melody might just get in the way:

12. Irresponsible Tune. I haven't talked much about Longstreth's lyrics, which on this record have ranged from opaque to playful to almost embarrassingly straightforward (I'd put a big stress on the almost, which makes all the difference); they are probably worth their own post, but I'll just note here this song is not only a perfect piece of tremulous rockabilly loveliness, it's also a perfect lyric on the theme of art's fundamentally intertwined irresponsibility and necessity. The tune itself might have been written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant but for the weird short-circuiting that happens in bar 10, when the tune's forward lilt seems to snag on the high note of "lost," where it sits for nearly 8 beats, while the guitar chords tiptoe forward to catch the melody's fall into the final cadence. The result is a distinctly odd but no less gorgeous 14-bar form:

As with all the songs on the record, "Irresponsible Tune" comes to an orderly and satisfying close; indeed, there's not a single fade-out on Swing Lo Magellan, another sign, to me at least, that this is a trove of songs as artfully mapped out and composed as any string quartet.

Now, there may be more to a great record than a collection of good tunes. But when this many songs in one collection are this good, I can't help but start thinking of Rubber Soul and Achtung Baby and Up on the Sun, OK Computer and Rhythm of the Saints, Rufus Wainwright and It Takes a Nation of Millions. I'm not sure what the words "genius" and "masterpiece" are for if not for this kind of instantly apprehensible but deeply designed beauty.

Monday, July 16, 2012

On Masterpieces and Magellan

How can you tell a masterpiece? It may be harder to recognize or even make them now, in an age of single-song downloads, longform episodic TV narrative, and multi-year film franchises; we seem to live in a time in which we expect to prolong good things, if not quite great things, in dribs and drabs over months and years, and for our art and entertainment to accumulate the lived-in familiarity of beloved friends rather than the life-shattering impact of a brilliant stranger whose arrival makes us quit our job, move across the country, or otherwise rearrange our lives around what's left after the shattering.

Apart from its aesthetic and experiential qualities, this doling out of cultural product can be a fine way to create economies of scale and amortize production costs, not to mention employ artists in an ongoing way (more or less) doing the work they love (more or or less) without the pressure of making The Best Thing That's Ever Been Made. And it's not a bad bargain for audiences, either: It's a lot easier, and in many ways more sane and humane, to live in a world where we all manage to find our groove, our tastes, and go on about curating our Netflix queue and our Spotify playlists (and, if we're of a certain age, order our subscription seasons of theater and the symphony). I mean, how many life-changing, conversion-level experiences do we have space and time for our in our lives? Maybe no more than we have for falling in love.

These thoughts have been stirred by the arrival this past week of the new Dirty Projectors album, Swing Lo Magellan, which has hit me with a force I wasn't prepared for, despite my having loved their last two records, Rise Above and Bitte Orca. Those records felt like tangible, irreversible leaps forward for art pop; lead Projector Dave Longstreth essentially uses the standard rock quartet, plus an indispensable complement of harmony singers for which the term "backup" is entirely inadequate, to compose music as dense but delightful as the best music ever written for bands, from Mozart to Ellington to Zeppelin.

Now, if one measure of great art is that it not only seduces us at first acquaintance but holds up to further, even seemingly infinite examination, the trick with a clever, almost freakishly talented artist like Longstreth has been to strike the balance between immediate appeal and embedded intricacy; we won't stick around to tease out the layers of a complicated work if it doesn't tease us a little into loving it first. These are matters of taste, but for me that balance was struck beautifully on Rise Above and in particular on the sweeping Bitte Orca, which included both a faux R&B single, "Stillness Is the Move," that could be danced to without a sprain, as well as the abstruse but uncannily exuberant time-signature clusterfuck "Temecula Sunrise":

I was prepared for more unsettling brilliance of that sort with the new record, and for the slight but entirely pleasing effort of appreciation that goes with it—more brain-tickling, and occasional booty-shaking; more nourishing headphone snacks for my commute. Instead, what floors me about Swing Lo Magellan is that Longstreth has somehow managed to make a record that's both instantly lovable, light and smiling as a summer breeze, and deeply, inexhaustibly beautiful. He's broken that delicate balancing act in half like a twig; he's turned the dial way up on both the treble of pop sweetness and the bass of compositional complexity and met us in the mid-range. The center holds, and at the moment it feels to me like the center of the universe.

Apologies for the hyperbole, but this is why I started this post with thoughts on masterpieces and their rarity; I haven't fallen for a record this hard for decades, I don't think. Individual songs, yes (cf. Tom Waits' "Hell Broke Luce"), and more recently much of the output of certain artists (Rufus Wainwright, Midlake, Janelle Monae, Alabama Shakes, Fleet Foxes). Indeed, I can't even recall the last work in any medium that's knocked me out like this; since I barely see movies or read books anymore, I have little to say there, but obviously I see plenty of theater, and the last plays I felt could be called masterpieces were probably August: Osage County and Circle Mirror Transformation. Obviously, on the small screen The Wire is an inarguable gold standard, though its greatness is attenuated by some thin narrative strands in ways that make it hard for me to consider it—or any great series, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a masterpiece in toto.

I have no such misgivings about Swing Lo Magellan, not a note of which is out of place. I would love to take apart several songs and demonstrate its world-shaking significance, and perhaps I will in future blog posts. For now I simply want to leave you with three choice tunes that I hope give an indication what I'm so excited about.

1. "Gun Has No Trigger" is the closest the record may have to a pop single, mainly because it's got an uninterrupted 4/4 drum track and a standard pop structure; that it's catchy as hell is another bonus (although one step Longstreth mostly hasn't made as a songwriter, for all his growth as a melodist, is to deliver great, full choruses; instead, as before, he largely tends to write long, verse-like structures that climax with a "chorus" that's simply the title line repeated). I would just point out a few things that send me over the moon about the song, apart from the way its ominous minor key gives way to a soaring major, and then to the surging one-line chorus.

First, there's the way Longstreth fills the first two phrases of the verse differently each time, not randomly or sloppily but in a way that makes each version haunt the other with unsung notes and dials up the song's insinuating, eerie tone. The first time he sings (at :21), "If you had looked, you might have just seen them/Stretched in the background," and then there's just a lacuna of unfilled-in beats. Next time he fills them in (at 1:21), "If you had looked, you'd be no one's coward/Distance, justice, power," and those two extra syllables of "power" have, well, a lot of power, because there were no notes in that space before. Finally, third time around, amping up a conversational, even confrontational tone (at 2:20): "If you had looked, you might reconsider/Or just maybe you already have." Chills.

That's worth listening for, as is the tiny but significant two-note slip Longstreth includes twice in every verse, in which for a passing moment he changes the chord from major to minor; it happens on "background" at :33, "colors" at :53, on "justice" at 1:32, "master" at 1:52...You'll get the idea. These tiny details shouldn't matter on first listen, and they certainly won't mean anything if you don't find this song as immediately compelling as I did, but they are there and they are very satisfying:

2. Then there's the title tune, which is just heartbreakingly beautiful and which seems to owe a lot, both in writing and arrangement, to Dylan's not-quite-fully-electric sound on "Bringing It All Back Home." It's there in the skittering drums, the bright alternating chords on guitar, in Longstreth's relaxedly leaping vocal; there are even ghosts of Dylan melodies here (just listen to the words "to the naked eye" and tell me you don't hear a faint jingle-jangle following you).

3. God, there are so many more songs worth mentioning: Amber Coffman's breakout vocal solo on "The Socialites," which is 20 times the faux R&B single that "Stillness" was; the unspeakably gorgeous, Kid A-meets-Graceland ode "See What She Seeing"; the Elvis-at-Sun-Records-reverb beauty of the album's perfect closer, "Irresponsible Tune"; the lovely dance between chiming, spraying guitar and angelic vocals on "Just From Chevron"; the cathartic whipsaw turns of the opening track, "Offspring Are Blank"; the sprawling, free-timed "Maybe That Was It"; the disarmingly, earnestly goofy "Dance for You"; the openhearted sweetness of "Impregnable Question."

But I'll leave you with "About To Die," which may be most typical song on an album that manages to be both stylistically diverse and unified in sound. This is the sound of Swing Lo Magellan in a bright, glittering nutshell: a melody line with a sneaky but catching shifting meter, in counterpoint with bright, jewel-like guitar chords, while Brian McOmber's percussion clatters and chatters ahead to the ecstatic chorus, where Longstreth's stretchy, soulful melisma is met with the celestial, limber harmonies of Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. There's even a short surf over some low strings that evokes "Village Ghettoland" (at 2:27).

In short, it's the "Fixing a Hole" of Swing Lo Magellan, which, as you may be unsurprised to learn, I'm quite ready to include my personal pantheon with Sgt. Pepper's (actually, can I change that to Rubber Soul?), Imperial Bedroom, and John Wesley Harding (whose cover, by the way, I kind of think Swing Lo's may be obliquely riffing on). I'm meeting this masterpiece head on.

(cross-posted on The Wicked Stage)