Following their 2009 breakout-stunner Bitta Orca, Dave Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors have come upon times as turbulent as their tracks’ stylistic shifts. After separating from girlfriend and bandmate Amber Coffman, whose vocal stylings helped define the band, Longstreth returned to his solo origins on a self-titled 2017 record which was lauded for being a skewed-pop break-up record. Its follow-up, Lamp Lit Prose (2018), leaned further into more polished avant garde quirks, albeit with a newfound sense of levity derived from a new crew of touring members.
Longstreth’s blooding of new players, however, doesn’t automatically assert a refreshing restart it might offer other acts in similar circumstances. Over their 18-year existence, a total of 31 other members have come and gone, both in the studio and on the stage. Moreover, the chemistry between the quintet when writing in the studio is yet to be tested. In a resounding and completely unexpected response to said apprehensions, Dirty Projectors have offered up 5EPs.
With each of the four members (drummer Mike Daniel Johnson aside) vocally and stylistically leading their own four-track EP, 5EPs is a year-ending collection of the drip-fed releases from 2020. With few songs broaching the three-minute mark, listening to the 20 tracks as an animated, ever-changing whole works just as well as hearing each EP individually. With the band coming together on the final EP, it offers fans their first insight into what Dirty Projectors’ future holds.
Windows Open, led by guitarist/backing vocalist Maia Friedman, displays an acoustic nuance throughout its alt-folk pop spectrum. “On The Breeze” bears just the right amount of disguised jazz progressions and forlorn melodies to make it feel like a Simon and Garfunkel arrangement. Her vocals soar here, just as they do on the more rollicking “Overlord”. Friedman lilts along some sweet vocal licks, pulling from ’90s pop but making it her own and her best.
“Search For Life” adds some classic Dirty Projectors idiosyncrasies with sampled, quivering cuts of violin to create both tension and release in tandem, counterpointing Friedman’s serenade. The 12-string slide guitar gives “Guarding The Baby” a compelling start that’s as meditative as the first three songs. It does, however, lack a defining melody like that of its predecessors.
Felicia Douglass heads the second, neo-RnB sounding EP, Flight Tower. Driven by her role as percussionist/keyboardist, “Inner World” opens with some slick work over the ivories as Douglass’ cascading vocal range unifies transitions between breakbeat percussion and acoustic strums in the vein of Solange. Pitch-shifted vocal samples and quirky percussion sprinkled throughout the minimalist pop ballad, “Lose Your Love” will please Dirty Projectors stalwarts, whilst the buoyant lyricism helps feel refreshing in contrast to the oftentimes obtuse metaphors of bygone albums; “The wilderness is giving up, so hold on, let yourself be found”.
Detuned synth, stabs of guitar and other expressive soundbites drive the majority of “Self Design”, however the reliance on these ephemeral elements leaves the track lacking any considerable anchor outside of the vocal melody that jigs and jags like a skipping vinyl. Almost as a response to these qualms, “Empty Vessel” utilises a foundation of steady synth to signpost the progression, allowing Douglass’ freewheeling melodies to stray into pitches without the listener being left in limbo.
There are no prizes for guessing the style that David Longstreth’s Super João is grounded in. “Holy Mackerel”’s nylon string guitar over a bossa nova metronome sets a delightful tone that sweeps you into a jazzy acoustic progression. Avoiding the lo-fi pitfalls of other contemporary artists that try their hand at the style, it rather leans into the sharper production of the band’s recent records and benefits from Longstreth’s characteristic vocals reaching a serene euphoria in the chorus melody.
“I Get Carried Away” moves in a more free-flowing time signature befitting that of a live performance. Paired with a piano on “You Create Yourself”, Longstreth glides with a jaunty splendour over the nylon, layering and self-harmonising his vocals to splendid effect, as he’s done many times before. It’s a beautiful ballad reared in the style of the influential Brazilian artist, just as the grainy and low-end-heavy electric guitar of “Moon, If Ever” pays tribute to the classic Chicago jazz scene of the ’50s. It’s unfortunate that verse and chorus feel disjointed and the reversed synth samples feel like one of the few experiments on the record that fails to pay off.
Akin to the orchestral arrangements that pervade Dirty Projectors’ 2005 LP The Getty Address, vocalist/keyboardist Kristin Slipp’s EP Earth feels grounded in a similar vein. Utilising neo-RnB vocals, heavily processed yet bizarrely soulful, she vocalises in alternative incarnations of herself over melodramatic experimental loops of classical, wind-heavy arrangements on opener “Eyes On The Road”.
“There I Said It” drives harder into RnB, dramatic staccato strings serving as both a rhythm and chord progression for her soulful vocals. Endlessly building with the addition of an unhinged kick, it teases by failing to erupt into a catharsis. More elemental strings pervade “Birds Eye” before sampled flutes give the piece a soundtrack style with an alternating tempo.
“Now I Know” closes with another orchestral feel with strings and classical tropes invoking tension and melodic dissonance. Here again, samples of these sounds are cut up and replayed, reflective of Dirty Projectors’ own fingerprint over the genre. However, Slipp’s vocal performance is the real standout, quivering and wavering with a subdued power that rounds out the most impressively unorthodox EP of the lot.
The final EP, Ring Road compiles each artists’ individual emotional, stylistic and lyrical threads into a vibrant collective effort. “Por Qué No” is a boppy, surf-rock track anchored by Longstreth’s vocals and chorus-heavy guitars, whilst “Searching Spirit” feels like a B-side off Lamp Lit Prose. Minimalist electric guitar licks convey a bare bones indie bop whilst retaining a wistful sense of 1970s Americana.
A more grunge-driven jam is offered on “No Studying”, with vocals taking a backseat to the crunch of bass/guitar before an impactful unifying chorus. Mid-track, the progression reverts to an acoustic arpeggio that offers an effective counterpoint but fails to revert back to the up-tempo opening when it feels like it should. “My Possession” aptly closes out the collection with a minimalistic synth/acoustic ballad that encapsulates the sounds and styles that preceded it.
Dirty Projectors’ 5EPs compilation serves to signpost a new era for the band in a number of ways. Concisely compartmentalising their stylistic influences across five starkly different EPs contrasts with the see-sawing combinations of genres seen within earlier records. It makes the experience more listener-friendly without sacrificing the eccentricities that make the band an experimental pop force.
More importantly, Longstreth’s delegation of creative control to help bring each new member’s own artistry to the band – which at times was considered a solo project – speaks volumes about the respect, integrity and experience that holds Dirty Projectors in great stead for what’s yet to come even so deep into their career.