LIVE REVIEW: DIRTY PROJECTORS + POP ETC at The Beacham 08.06.12
All photos by: Kelley Jackson ©
Dirty Projectors came through Florida recently, stopping at the Beacham Theatre in Orlando on Monday, August 6th with POP ETC (formerly The Morning Benders) as support. I saw Dirty Projectors once before on this tour, last month in New York. Having been at the back of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell for that show, with seemingly countless curly mustaches and tank tops between me and the band, I decided that it was worth being out late on a school night to get what would almost certainly be a closer look. Although the show at the Beacham was pretty well attended by some seriously enthusiastic fans, it was easy enough to get within spitting distance of the stage.
Having a professional photographer like Kelley Jackson by my side helped in that regard. I treat photographers like pregnant women when I’m walking through the crowd with them. “Stand aside,” my bearing tells those in my way, “This is an emergency situation.” I’m also sure to project an air that says “I do not actually intend to spit at the stage, despite my proximity.”
Let’s talk about the opening act, POP ETC. I have strong misgivings about any band that would decide on this name. From the start, it shows that they lack the ability to make sound decisions under pressure. According to a statement on the band’s website, they decided to change from The Morning Benders for a noble enough reason, when they learned that the term “bender” has derisive connotations towards homosexuals in the UK and other places around the world, and feared that keeping the name could make them seem “hateful, or at best, ignorant.”
They posit that the band name was “the equivalent of ‘The Morning Fags’ in America”. I would like to point out though, that THAT highly offensive name would translate to the rather benign ‘The Morning Cigarettes’ across the pond. But, I understand where they’re coming from. So, after what I imagine must have been a great deal of careful deliberation, they decided on POP ETC (yep, all in caps; that’s part of it). Now, I made up my mind early on that I hated this name. That’s ok, though. There are a lot of good bands with really bad names. Sometimes you get so used to hearing a strange band name that you forget that there’s anything abnormal at all about it, until you tell somebody previously unaware of said band that you’re listening to, say, The Butthole Surfers, or Gay Dad. The point I’m trying to make is that when I start out a relationship with a musical group, I keep an open mind about their music, even when I have no respect for them in their choice of moniker.
So, I was eager to see what they brought to the stage. The first thing that caught my ear was the auto-tune effect on lead singer Chris Chu’s vocals during the opening song. In 2012, it’s hard to hear that sound and not have strong feelings. It brings up a lot of questions: Is this an ironic statement? Is this band so pure and innocent that it chose this particular aesthetic based only on its sonic qualities? Did they ever hear 808s and Heartbreak? So, auto-tune showed up early, and continued to make appearances throughout their set. That is an aspect of the performance that could not be ignored. The songs themselves were pleasant enough from a musical standpoint, very precise but simple mellow rock embellished with many of the hallmarks of “chill-wave” that you’ve probably heard with increasing frequency in some your favorite hamburger restaurants’ commercials over the past few years.
Lyrically, I found the songs fairly maddening. With few exceptions, the drill was for some kind of thesis statement to be laid out, for instance “you gotta be hungry like the wolf” or “rock your body quick”, then to repeat these lines over and over until 3 or 4 minutes had passed. I’ve heard some people’s opinions that these songs are a complex satire of traditional pop song construction. I’m very proud of the people who formed these opinions, but watching POP ETC, I didn’t feel that any hidden truths were being revealed and was generally unmoved beyond nodding my head to what were undeniably some very competent grooves. So, it was an alright set of music, but I don’t see myself bumping any of these tracks in my murdered-out Escalade with the 26 inch custom Stagecoach rims anytime soon.
Dirty Projectors opened their set, as they have throughout this tour, with the title track from their latest, Swing Lo Magellan, performing the simple song as a drum/bass/dual guitar quartet before additional instrumentalists/vocalists Haley Dekle and Olga Bell joined them on stage. From there, they then played through the first handful of songs from the new album, the live arrangements holding fairly true to the studio recordings. David Longstreth, the currently somewhat shaggy-maned mastermind behind Dirty Projectors’ songs and sound, has been narrowing the focus of his band to a fine point on their last few releases. To my ears, 2009′s Bitte Orca was the first Projectors album to come to the listener, rather than daring them to seek out meaning in the often inscrutably complex flurry of melodies and dissonant accompaniments that defined previous works. The songs of Swing Lo Magellan have boiled the essence of the group down to its barest elements. The songs are very straight forward by their standards, although most still incorporate some small degree of rhythmic trickery at one point or another. Some album tracks contain little more than sub bass kicks and close miked clickety-clacks to anchor the eerily tight vocal harmonies that have become a recognizable calling card of their sound.
The new songs translate well to live performance. The wide open spaces are a wonderful canvas for the ridiculous vocal talent of Amber Coffman, as well as Dekle and Bell. Longstreth’s vocals are not heart-stopping, but his style is singular and bold. The same can be said for the lanky southpaw’s guitar playing, which is hard for me to trace via influences, other than to say it tends to be vaguely west-African in nature. One of my minor gripes about the show is that the sound mix emphasized the low end to the point that it was sometimes difficult to make out some of his and Coffman’s instrumental passages. Along with playing ten songs (I think) from the new album, they included some faves from Bitte Orca, including “Cannibal Resource”, “Useful Chamber”, “Temecula Sunrise” (hell yeah) and “Stillness Is The Move”.
Also in the set was “Beautiful Mother”, from the group’s collaboration with Bjork, Mount Wittenberg Orca, whose inorganic sounding chorus vocals never fail to astound me. All told, it was a highly impressive and moving performance by a band who has discovered a new direction for themselves, and a fitting precursor to the epic middle-of-the-night omelette I was to consume a short time later while arguing with Kelley about whether my Chaka Khan impression has “too much Tina Turner in it.”
Check out all of Kelley Jackson’s photos from the set at Beacham Theatre below. Follow more of Alastair St. Hill when he and his posse takeover the airwaves at WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa.