Track of the Week: Dirty Projectors' "Ascending Melody"

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 13 2010 4:53 PM

Track of the Week: Dirty Projectors' "Ascending Melody"

Jody Rosen : Unlike nearly every other youngish white inhabitant of the gentrified New Brooklyn, it took me a while to warm up to Dirty Projectors. In fact, I'm still only lukewarm. I respect them, I'm mildly awed by them, but I don't quite love them. It's my fault, not theirs. In general, I have a hard time with art rock, and the DP's tricky, showy songs are very arty indeed: trompes l'oeil —or trompes l'oreille —whose meaning and purpose, concealed beneath disorienting blasts of rhythm and melody, emerge only after a lot of close listening. But at his best, songwriter-guitarist-frontman Dave Longstreth has something of Thelonious Monk in him, an off-kilter sense of musical time and space that seems to be saying something about, well, space-time, life, the universe-musical jokes that grade into cosmic, metaphysical jokes. Plus, the vocal parts Longstreth writes for backing vocalists Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle, Angel Deradoorian—the Acid Andrews Sisters—are truly awesome .

Which brings me to "Ascending Melody," a new, nonalbum single, released as a free MP3. (You can download the song here .) As usual, it'll take me a while to really wrap my ears around this song. Here are some things I like. I like the gangly funkiness of the lead guitar figure. I especially like the swank smooth jazz-feel of the acoustic guitar noodling that darts in and out in the song's opening minute. I love the way those gals sing. And I like the moment, around the 3:00 mark, when the song grinds to a halt and stays there for far too long. Nearly a full minute by my count, without much going on at all. There's something kind of gangsta about that.

Here's what I don't like: Longstreth's voice. The guy sings the emasculated warble that's the default style of seemingly all male indie rockers these days: a wimped-out version of David Byrne's yelp. This sound just gets on my nerves. Also, the lyrics. "Reciprocity for hungry souls/ Go away hungry." Huh? What? Help me, Jonah: what are these young people talking about?

Jonah Weiner
: I didn't think I minded Longstreth's voice, but now that you mention it, my heart sank a quarter-inch or so when he started singing here, after the ladies had been going for the first minute. (Not sure whether they're all singing on "Ascending Melody.") The effect of his arrival was sort of like when Charlie Rose is interviewing someone you really want to hear talk and he keeps interrupting them. Somebody turn this guy's mic off! Longstreth can sing, but he's a less interesting—and in the indie-rock context at least, more conventional—singer than the girls. As you said, his gifts lie elsewhere, as a songwriter and arranger.

I tend to agree with you: I'm impressed by this band, but I don't enjoy listening to them, exactly. The big exception to that is no big surprise: " Stillness is the Move ," the "breakout" single off Bitte Orca . In-the-pocket clatter, nagging guitar drone, Longstreth-free vocals, and Coffman doing a spry, note-vaulting, tricky-cadenced, Destiny's Child/Aaliyah impression. One of my favorite pieces of rock criticism last year was Solange Knowles' smart, lush "Stillness" cover , which made the song's R & B connection explicit. Between the Xx's "Hot Like Fire"  and tUnE-YarDs' "Real Live Flesh," it's a good time for R & B-inflected art-rock.

That gangly funk riff that starts off the song contains a near-direct Talking Heads quote, doesn't it? That fraying flourish at the end? I just skipped through Remain in Light  to try and find it but came up empty-handed. Help me, Jody: What ye olde cultural artifact am I talking about?

J.R.
: I just zipped through a couple of Talking Heads albums and I couldn't find the bit, either. We may need to turn to " The Fray "—the Slate message board, not the band —for guidance on this.

Meanwhile, I managed to find the "Ascending Melody" lyrics here . It's not a pretty picture, I'm afraid. Here is the song, in full:

/blogs/browbeat/2010/01/13/track_of_the_week_dirty_projectors_ascending_melody/jcr:content/body/slate_image

Two businessmen corralling life
Restrain yourself, you both must hunger properly
Unfathomable enigma
Repine unfathomable enigma

[CHORUS]
Ascending melody, rise above
Ascending melody, stronger than all concern

Are you happy to repeat yourself
For a minute then, I thought I was someone else
Ask the world for the right release
Reciprocity, the hungry souls go away from greed

[REPEAT CHORUS]

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Is it wrong of me to hate these lyrics as much as I do—to want Dirty Projectors to make sense, or at least to be less pretentious about their nonsense? The band is lavishly interesting, musically; I know that should be enough. But as with Radiohead, I can't ignore the doggerel. "Repine unfathomable enigma"! Bob Dylan used the word "repine" in a song once, but he's Bob Dylan. No one else should go near that word. Ever. Also, can we call for a moratorium on Williamsburg hipsters giving snotty life-advice to "businessmen"?

One thought: Maybe the DP's should go completely lyric-less—just have those women sing lots of long vowel sounds? Or maybe they should croon the word "Deradoorian" for four minutes?

J.W.:
Those words are bad, although I don't totally trust that lyrics site—I had it as "two businessmen quarrelling," and "unfathomably angry." But, either way, the fact that there's some ambiguity about the words they're singing is an asset. A word like repine shouldn't be front-and-center in any song that's not about evergreen reforestation, and, thankfully, it's not front-and-center here. I like your vision of Dirty Projectors doing away with words for phonemes. I sort of listen to them (and most Radiohead songs, though I find Yorke's lyrics more effective and evocative than you do) that way already. I bet a big part of the reason we prefer the ladies to Longstreth is because we can make out much more clearly what he's saying. Nice to do this again, Jody. I'm going to go type the word "Deradoorian" for four minutes.

Correction, Jan. 15, 2010: This post originally stated that Angel Deradoorian sings lead on "Stillness is the Move." Amber Coffman does. 

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.