Friday, August 21, 2009

Case Studies in Hype: Dirty Projectors and the Beets

(Please note the lack of a string section above)

There's a hilarious bit from the comedy duo Scharpling and Wurster about the fictional rock band Mother 13. In the role of singer Corey Harris, Jon Wurster explains how his fledgling major label rock band sounds like a cross between The Clash, the Who, Led Zeppelin, R.E.M. and some other well-regarded, A-list rock bands. However, when he plays his band's single, what one hears is lifeless rock only remarkable for how generic it is. Scharpling is incredulous, accusing Wurster of mentioning those bands as an attempt to use their credibility for his own gain.

I couldn't help but think of this "cred by association" when I heard Dirty Projectors covering Black Flag's Damaged album. Well, they don't exactly "cover" the songs but rather offer a reinterpretation from memory. This canny stunt would bring the Brooklyn band lots of attention, which culminated just a few months ago with the release of the follow up to the Rise Above project, Bitte Orca. The album received nearly universal acclaim and has made the band into one of the bigger names in the indie community.

The problem is Dirty Projectors are more or less the exact aesthetic opposite of Black Flag: studied, precious and overly intellectualized. There's absolutely nothing visceral or immediate about their music, which evokes nothing other than how clever its composers must be. Forget about hitting the listeners as hard as a classic punk tune. They don't even have the impact of the average top 40 pop song (Those songs tend to have hooks). I have trouble imagining Dirty Projectors as music that someone "enjoys." It's music that one appreciates if one convinces oneself that is for the best.

The Dirty Projectors never met a vocal affectation or sharp timing change they didn't like, employing them whether or not they serve the tune. Weird for the sake of weird, as Moe Szyslak would say. Old school rock fans may deplore modern bands like Vampire Weekend and MGMT, at least those bands have a backbeat and seek to move the listener. Dirty Projectors just pile on the quirk and hope it adds up to something. When the band strips away their more histrionic tendencies, such as on the single "Stillness in the Move," the results approach listenable. This happens far too rarely on Bitte Orca for the album to be of use to anyone but those who'd rather marvel at a band's "ingenuity" than be engaged by their music.

The Beets, on the other hand are almost ridiculously simple. The band's Spacemen-3-meets-Beat-Happening-style garage pop gained them a good amount of recognition in a relatively short period. I caught the band a few weeks ago and I was initially impressed with their unique style. However, by the end of their set I found myself rather bored as their sameness of sound relented into monotony. This was clearly a band with potential but seemed to be unworthy of the praise they were receiving.

However, I think the root this band's particular hype comes from intentions that are sincere and well-meaning. In the film Ratatouille, the character Anton Ego gives a speech about the role of the critic, concluding that the critic's ultimate purpose is the "defense of the new." "The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends," he states. I think that often people, particularly if they are in some kind of gate-keeper position, will see a band like the Beets and realize they've got something going even if they have not quite figured it all out yet. So they try to give the new some friends and talk up the band to status they may have not quite achieved as of yet. Of course, there are bandwagon-jumpers who will immediately take to a band like this as they are the sort that relish in being able to say they were into this awesome shit before anybody else. Suddenly, the band has a following and those on the outside are scratching their heads saying "What the hell is big deal about these guys?" It's sort of like a single A-prospect being brought up to the majors and everybody wondering why he's hitting .220.

Of course, in these accelerated times, bands can achieve a modicum of fame much more quickly than they could years ago. In the past the above process might have taken three years, in which time the band may have matured and developed to the point of definite potency (or they could have broken up and that would be that). Now, this process could take three months. Bands are hyped to the heavens and then quickly discarded for not living up to perhaps unreasonable expectations. There was great quote in the 2006 Pazz and Jop poll wherein a critic notes (I'm paraphrasing, I can't find original quote) "The first time I heard of Cold War Kids was when I heard that everyone is sick of hearing about Cold War Kids." That about sums it up.

The Beets may well have a great record in them. Let's not write them off before they can accomplish it.


matthew said...

While it's completely reasonable to find the dirty projectors non-palatable, I think to belittle others enjoyment of them by stating its something people just intellectually engage with is a cop out. When I listen to beat happening am I intellectually slumming it because of its rudimentary playing? That logic seems faulty. And yes, listening (or with Doc Brown's help) or seeing the Dirty Projectors is not as visceral as Black Flag but there must be another option of engagement besides throwing oneself off a stage? As someone who enjoys both takes on Damaged, I simply don't see them as an either/or proposition. At the very least, DP managed to take those songs and transform them into something completely novel with the source material as oppossed to the fun (yet often tiresome) homages that these songs routinely receive(d) in VFW halls on Sunday afternoons.

Brushback said...

I love the third paragraph, it's great.

The commenter above me, I'm not sure what he's talking about.

PB said...


Perhaps I should have clarified myself a bit. I'm not inherently opposed to music that engages one intellectually or comes off as pristine or calculated which I would hope is evident to anyone who reads my blog regularly. However, I happen to think that the Dirty Projectors' calculation doesn't add up to much. As far each enjoying each version of Damaged being an either/or situation, if you can enjoy both, bully for you. Personally, I don't see how one could plausibly claim to be inspired by the music of Black Flag and create music like that of Dirty Projectors. Sure their take on the material is "novel," but novelty is pretty much fleeting by nature.

dola said...

Is 'Stillness is the Move' fairly representative as far as Bitte Orca goes? In the incredibly awkward big-pimpin'-by-way-of-Reykjavík video that they did for that single there is one unintentionally telling part: the llama, spying an open left, tries to gallop away before being reined in forcefully and nervously by the band's pointman down the right side. There will be no room for impulse and thrills with the Dirty Projectors. Challeging rock indeed.

Also, if i have to take these dopey ass lyrics with my decent tinariwen guitar lines, i'll pass.

isn't life under the sun just a crazy dream?
isn't life just a mirage of the world before the world?
why am i here and not over there?
where did time begin
where does space end
where do you and i begin?


Paul said...

why can't you just write about the ten best boston bands of all time like everyone else?

PB said...

For the record, Paul:

1. Mission of Burma
2. The Modern Lovers
3. Volcano Suns
4. La Peste
5. The Real Kids
6. The Remains
7. Big Dipper
8. The Lyres
9. The Girls
10. Classic Ruins

The Pixies are somewhere just under the top ten along with Christmas, Come, Dangerous Birds and Helium. Oh and SSD too. I'll admit their later records were garbage but Get It Away is one of the best hXc records ever.

CK said...

I saw DP at the waterfront and all I could think of is how bullshit it all is. There is no emotional involvement or passion, other than getting their "parts" right. It's just a jumbled mess of "let's do this weird thing here, float our voices like Mirah Carey all over the place and hit every fucking note in every scale to show we know them all" BS. Gimme Rush, Yes, hell gimme King Crimson, anything but this annoying crap.

I've figured out this guy's formula: he does exactly what you don't want to hear everytime, in every song, so people can nod their heads and go, "aww yes, very nice, this is so NEW". Then he wants to have it both ways by playing up his "I like K Records, Black Flag too" indie/punk cred in interviews to downplay the pretentiousness of it all.

PB said...

CK, thank you for stating much more succinctly the point I was attempting to make.

For the record, I would like to say that it is possible to admire the sophisticated and the primitive. After all, Brian Eno produced No New York. The difference is that Eno let those bands be what they were rather than trying to change them into something else, which is exactly what Dirty Projectors did with Black Flag.