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Monday, Oct. 1, 2012

Dirty Projectors @ The Pabst Theater

Sept. 30, 2012

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CJ Foeckler
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In the summer of 2009, the Dirty Projectors made a brash statement. Frontman Dave Longstreth demonstrated that sharp guitar riffs, gratuitous vocal theatrics and numerous time measure changes wouldn’t just vie for a listener’s attention; they would command it by force. Of course, not everyone thought the piercing R&B was palatable, but no one could argue that it wasn’t something. And, indeed, Bitte Orca remains the year’s—perhaps decade’s—most intricate, bombastic record, adored by many and despised by likely double that amount.

Almost three years after Bitte Orca startled people, the Dirty Projectors have caught everyone off-guard again. This time, though, the feat wasn’t accomplished through the artsy, innovative songwriting methods that garnered the band so much praise and flak, but by doing the exact opposite. Swing Lo Magellan reveals the most straightforward folk songs of the band’s career and proves the group can be just as mesmerizing without all the audacious rhythms. Performing Sunday night at the Pabst Theater to a smaller-than-you’d-expect audience, the Dirty Projectors spent much of their time culling from their latest, low-frills record.

“You guys ready?” Longstreth asked immediately after the soothing vibes of the title-track opener “Swing Lo Magellan.” What followed shouldn’t have been shocking for a band constantly playing with expectations, but somehow the songs from what’s considered the band’s “restrained album” sounded punchier and more exhilarating than ever imaginable. The crunchy guitars on “Offspring Are Blank” and the impressively hard-hitting “Useful Chamber” made them resemble arena rockers. The blustery ego that often emanates from hard-rocking acts wasn’t felt here, however. Longstreth addressed the crowd sincerely during breaks and took a back seat for a majority of the show. In fact, the entire band was mostly cast in darkness on stage. Blue and orange stage lights would expose brief glimpses of the musicians to the audience. The simple lighting helped accentuate that the performance wasn’t centered on those playing the instruments, but rather the sounds emitting from them.

Unfortunately, the band did have to overcome some sound problems in the middle of the set; for a group so precise, it’s jarring to hear just one note out of place, as anything less than perfection feels a little off. However, the rest of the evening was filled with such transcendence that those small flaws were easy to brush away. Longstreth and the rest of his band orchestrated an awe-inspiring mélange of elegant harmonies and sweeping arrangements. The sheer beauty reached its peak during the closing love song, “Impregnable Question,” which was a gentle moment in an otherwise raucous evening.