At first major single, Wye Oak seems like yet another one of those neo-pastoral indie acts (the Head and the Heart, the Civil Wars, Bowerbirds) that seem to be everywhere you can find beards, feathers or buffalo plaid these days, except Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack are from Baltimore, a city I associate more with "The Wire" than I do with low-key modern folk. Live, though, and especially considering their newer material, Wye Oak is more psych-gaze rock infused with the occasional burst of '80s synth fluttering beneath waves of reverb.
In addition to "Holy Holy" from 2011's "Civilian," the bluesy breakup letter "That I Do," and a distorted, insistent version of "Plains," Wye Oak's tight nine-song set included the brand new "Spiral," written during a break at home in Baltimore. The band closed with "Civilian," the title track from the previously-named album and a gorgeous spine chiller featured in season two of "The Walking Dead."
Dirty Projectors led with "Swing Lo Magellan," the second title track of the evening, this from the album released exactly one week before the show. This song and most of the album play like lounge pop, a product I conjecture to be inspired by Burt Bacharach, doo-wop and soul. "Swing Lo Magellan" is more of a songwriter's album than all of Dirty Projectors' previous releases. "Swing Lo Magellan" relies less on the profligate sprawl of sound featured on 2009's "Bitte Orca," trimming this back to allow the bones of the song to uphold the vocal aspect, which unfolds in lush density.
In contrast to this quality was the set design, three panels of white so simply and boldly lit with amber lamps that the entire stage could have appeared on the set of the Ed Sullivan Show before the designers got cheeky and installed a bunch of doors behind Jim Morrison. This ambience ideally framed songs like "Offspring Are Blank" and "Just From Chevron," although it did seem jarring when the blue lights came up for "Beautiful Mother," an intensely freaky track from "Mount Wittenberg Orca," a collaboration between Dirty Projectors and Björk.
Dave Longstreth officially founded Dirty Projectors in 2003, and since then, his primary talent has been in composition. Longstreth and his band are known for the layering of chamber instrumentals, electronic samples and unconventional vocal harmonies to create a lovely discord, an almost tactile experience for the listener. I cringe at my own use of the word "experimentation" because that sounds almost amateur, and Longstreth's expertise seems to border on the obsessive. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was German, or at least Scandinavian. He was all limbs and precision last night, a skinny aesthete that brought to mind a shaggy-haired David Byrne.
In the pipes department, Longstreth does not hold a candle to Amber Coffman. Coffman is a guitarist and shares vocals with Haley Dekle and Olga Bell, but on songs like "The Socialites" and "Stillness Is the Move," she took the lead and made me wonder why everyone I know hasn't fallen madly in love with her already. Her voice is pop gold. Its pitch, pacing and arc could fit her with any hit maker from young Michael Jackson to the young New Kids, and her range is so goddamn impressive that at one point during "Stillness Is the Move," I turned to see my friend, oblivious to me and mouthing, "Seriously?" while staring at Coffman twirling across the stage.
At times, Dirty Projectors teetered on the edge of incomprehensibility, the swells of music folding over and into vocals with a dizzying frequency and unpredictable rhythm. At each precipice, though, a band member swooped in to remind the audience that there is a method in the madness, whether it be Longstreth's direction, Coffman's voice, or drummer Michael Johnson's tribal percussion on "See What She Seeing," which sounded less like drums and more like the grounding of electrical currents along a grid.
Tidy in length but purposeful in scope, Dirty Projectors' set was a masterful roller coaster of a show, album-perfect and beautifully executed.
Dirty Projectors set list:
Swing Lo Magellan
Offspring Are Blank
Just From Chevron
Dance for You
About to Die
The Gun Has No Trigger
See What She Seeing
Stillness Is the Move
When the World Comes to an End