In the years leading up to September 2016, it was easy to wonder where Dirty Projectors had gone. Dave Longstreth’s ragtag, Ivy League squad of technically dazzling instrumentalists and hocketing female vocalists achieved one of indie rock’s all-time great one-two punches with 2009’s unyieldingly bright, spasmodic Bitte Orca and 2012’s often-woodsier Swing Lo Magellan. Why recede into quietude after climbing such great heights?
It’s easy to regret that question now. Dirty Projectors have felt somewhat inescapable since Longstreth reformed the band as a brooding solo project for 2017’s Dirty Projectors, followed that effort with 2018’s Bitte-lite LP Lamp Lit Prose and released the 2019 live album Sing the Melody. At some point in 2018, Longstreth expanded Dirty Projectors back into a band with, like its prior incarnation, three virtuoso female instrumentalist-vocalists, and that’s been the crux of the project’s 2020 presence.
Think of Longstreth’s 2020 as Dirty Projectors but decentralized. Even amidst this year’s ceaseless media roar of concerning election and pandemic news, Dirty Projectors gradually released four EPs—one with each band member on lead vocals and Longstreth co-writing each song—and are now releasing a fifth with a “dynamic, full-band sound.” Collected as an anthology of these releases, 5EPs is the first time this seemingly interminable project has felt completely approachable, rather than yet another informational overload in this swirling year. And though it highlights each performer’s unique strengths, it sometimes obscures the new members’ talents under tried-and-true Dirty Projectors sounds.
The series’ first two EPs, Windows Open and Flight Tower, best emphasize their vocalists’ flair. Although the former largely exists in the shadow of Bitte Orca highlight “Two Doves,” Maia Friedman’s deep, rich voice further softens its songs’ already butter-smooth folk. She stands out best as she narrates the push-pull of the richly percussive “Overlord,” which boasts more of the signature unwieldy Dirty Projectors sound than most of the EP.
Flight Tower might be the best EP of the bunch, primarily because Felicia Douglass is such a versatile musician. Her experience with the sorely underrespected, now-defunct Dirty Projectors worshippers Ava Luna and her electro-pop duo Gemma match the digital explorations of Dirty Projectors-era Longstreth to a tee. On “Lose Your Love,” the anthology’s apex, she scales octaves and adjusts her ever-malleable voice to twinkling pianos and Dirty Projectors-style tin-can trap kicks and digitized cries. Even on the songs Douglass didn’t co-write, her voice is perfectly suited to ride Longstreth’s longtime African inspirations (“Self Design”) and fluorescent, static synths (“Empty Vessel”).
5EPs loses steam a bit with the Kristin Slipp-led Earth Crisis and Longstreth’s own Super João. The former is often striking, but in the same way as the ocean when seen from cliffs: What you perceive is intriguing, but few distinct points stand out. Even though Slipp and Longstreth co-wrote Earth Crisis, its fragmented orchestral elements don’t give much space for Slipp to present herself as a strong vocalist; only on the more upbeat, palpitating “There I Said It” is the soundscape coherent enough to invigorate her singing.
Longstreth’s Super João follows, and the inspiration of its namesake, bossa nova innovator João Gilberto, pervades its four songs. In the hands of an artist who hadn’t already pulled so extensively from bossa nova, this influence might prove novel, but instead, it feels more like a retread of long-exited waters. If Lamp Lit Prose sometimes sounded like a stifled repeat of Bitte Orca’s explosive side, then Super João is the equivalent of Bitte’s restrained parts. Both EPs likewise share a knack for how-do-you-do-fellow-kids-style lyricism (there, “she keeps it 100 in the shade”; here, on “I Get Carried Away,” “sometimes, it’s loco / sometimes, it’s craaaaaaa-zy.”)
Something approaching the classic Dirty Projectors sound emerges, as expected, on the final EP, Ring Road. Douglass, Slipp and Friedman harmonize; songs suddenly stop and restart; Longstreth mostly fixates on undistorted, arpeggiated brightness; that signature Longstreth falsetto-shriek comes and goes. Sequenced right after Super João in the anthology, it’s a reminder that Longstreth often sounds best with a band—particularly one with piercing, layered female vocal harmonies in the background—behind him.
Case in point: Although Longstreth and his crew don’t pick up much steam on the overdriven portions of Ring Road’s “No Studying,” this newest iteration of Dirty Projectors shines like a diamond on the track’s folkier portions. It’s a contrast that illuminates the defining quality of late-era Dirty Projectors: When exploring sounds more common with solo acts, Longstreth conversely sounds better surrounded by collaborators who can hold their own as easily as they can blend in. 5EPs makes the case that Dirty Projectors functions best not as a party for one, but as a conversation.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Follow him on Twitter, where he has been hailed as “an incredible person with an incredibly bad internet connection.”