The Getty Address
The fifth full-length from Dave Longstreth, the 23-year-old singer, guitarist, percussionist, and brain trust of the Connecticut-based band Dirty Projectors, is a different creature entirely from anything else in the indie menagerie. The Getty Address is neither rock nor pop–you might wait ten minutes for a familiar beat or anything that’s unmistakably an electric guitar, and Longstreth dispenses entirely with verse-chorus-verse structures. Despite the liberal use of sampling and bass-heavy drum sounds, the album’s got almost nothing in common with hip-hop either: most of the songs are built around recordings of medieval-sounding female choral singing and a seven-piece chamber ensemble of woodwinds and brass. It’s opaque, messy, and weird, monastic and maverick, both buoyed and burdened by Longstreth’s formidable ambition and sly, arrogant humor. He’s written an extensive press release for the record that reads more like a concordance, in which he lays claim to a whole crazy caravan of influences–the music of the Eagles, the rise and fall of Aztec civilization, Justin Timberlake–none of which you’d necessarily pick up without him there to explain.
Longstreth’s claim that the record represents an attempt “to reimagine American music by recreating the marriage of African music and European music in their purer, unbastardized forms” holds a little water, but only because he has an unusual talent for stitching radically different genres together–his hybrid form isn’t a blend so much as a contrived, almost perverse combination of familiar elements, like a cream cheese and parrot sandwich. Taken together, the “European” chamber-music elements, the “African” percussion and rhythms, and Longstreth’s own wandering croon–a peculiar, wobbly tenor that tips easily into falsetto–create a dreamlike state where alienation and familiarity coexist without tension.
But even this conceit feels tacked on after the fact, an impression that’s borne out by the facts of the album’s creation–the percussion, for example, wasn’t part of the material as Longstreth originally conceived it. In early 2003, while a student at Yale, he recorded the choral parts and wind septet in catch-as-catch-can settings (a weight room, a chapel) but wasn’t happy with the results. He set the tapes aside, dropped out of school to live in a commune north of Olympia, Washington, and that fall toured the States with Yume Bitsu’s Adam Forkner, where he started performing American Idol-style to snippets of the recordings. Revitalized, Longstreth spent several months digitally scissoring and manipulating the material, then reconstituted the album with new flourishes like uneven splashes of guitar, skittery drum-machine patterns, xylophone, and tinker’s-wagon percussion. Last he added his lyrics, whose surrealistic imagery (“If she had not paved / In memoriam their wounds / With gilt gold scabs”) finally had an appropriate backdrop. The songs evolve more like classical music than rock or hip-hop, sliding almost seamlessly from one track to the next–often the only thing that announces the beginning of a new tune is the addition of a new instrumental layer to the existing textures. At Subterranean on Saturday, Longstreth will play with a nine-piece ensemble augmented by prerecorded material. (Joe Grimm, who’ll be part of the band and contributed trombone and trumpet to the record, opens the show under the name the Wind-up Bird.)
For such a sprawling album, The Getty Address feels surprisingly claustrophobic at times, in part because it’s so tightly self-referential–Longstreth apparently wanted to connect every element of the record to every other element with an elaborate network of repeated musical and lyrical themes. The melodramatic strings, pulsing woodwinds, and ethereal clouds of female voices tend to strike the ear first, overwhelming the variations between the arrangements, and the first few songs try to get so much mileage out of the same instrumental motifs that they feel a bit arid. But on the fourth track, “I Will Truck,” the album flowers for the first time. Over muted, martial bassoon, jaunty oboe and clarinet, decorative sprigs of guitar, and a skeletal drumbeat adorned with sandpaper-block shuffling and delayed hand claps, Longstreth sings: “I will truck / Faster than the world revolves / I will jet / Spirals ’round the leaves as they fall.” When he mutters an almost buried rock ‘n’ roll “yeah,” it sounds playfully subversive, like he’s tweaking his own attempts to generate rock momentum within this strange aesthetic.
Longstreth sometimes does make minor concessions to pop forms, with powerful results. “Not Having Found” combines stuttering hip-hop-influenced percussion with birdlike Philip Glass-style choral lines that provide something like a regular pattern of chord changes, and his vocal melody–which occasionally spins out into absurd gospel-singer acrobatics–is doubled by meditation-tape flute and repeated often enough to border on catchy. The lyrics are unusually intelligible too: “Maybe the truth in searching / Is not having found.”
Frequently, though, Longstreth handicaps himself by yoking his music explicitly to one of his pop-philosophical ideas. “D. Henley’s Dream,” which consists almost entirely of long tones played on “beer bottle flutes,” eerie Gothic-cathedral female vocals, and Longstreth’s singing, conflates Henley with Moctezuma I by giving the Eagles front man a dream similar to the one the Aztec emperor had before the founding of Tenochtitlan: “There’s a lake of black gold / There’s an island, place / Of my great battle / There’s an eagle and a snake.”
Longstreth’s preoccupation with the Eagles began honestly enough–his brother is a huge fan–and he’s since come to see the band as an unwitting agent of cultural imperialism. He says that while he was living in Ecuador in 1999, someone was “always singing ‘Hotel California.’ It reminded me of how Christian missionary songs were used as the first element of colonization.” But this sociopolitical subtext, sincere as it may be, is deflated by Henley’s presence as a sort of ironic punch line–the title alone compromises the evocative music, which on its own is stately and sad, conjuring images of a ruined palace submerged under a sheet of black ice. Nobody wants to be picturing the Hotel California sinking into a pool of pink champagne.
For the last third of The Getty Address, though, the music’s so fascinating that it’s much harder to complain about the metaphors. “Tour Along the Potomac” marries throbbing dubby drums to a corny swinging sax melody and a muted trombone chorus that’d be right at home in a hotel ballroom in the 1940s, and “Time Birthed Spilled Blood” segues from grim, lunging cello to a frisky faux-tribal beat like something from Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. Longstreth repurposes instruments thoughtfully, playing not just with their specific character and sound but with their genre associations (double reeds go with classical music, drum machines go with pop, and so on), and as a result he can reference a dozen idioms at once rather than making a blenderized mush of them. The Getty Address seems to be trying to interact with every song that’s ever been piped into an over-air-conditioned grocery store, an elevator in a government building, or a near-empty Chinese restaurant, plus every Billboard album of the past 50 years. Longstreth has certainly bitten off more than he can chew, but maybe that’s what it takes to create music so odd, engrossing, and gorgeous.
Dirty Projectors, Volcano, Dogme 95, Wind-up Bird
When: Sat 6/25, 9 PM
Where: Subterranean, 2011 W. North
Info: 773-278-6600 or 800-594-8499