Over the course of seven daring and diverse albums, David Longstreth has transformed Dirty Projectors from an unclassifiable, avant-garde unit into something decidedly more approachable. Released 2 1/2 weeks ago, “Swing Lo Magellan” is Dirty Projectors’ most accessible musical statement — emphasizing mood over complexity and abrasion — and already seems primed to be the its most successful commercial endeavor. To the uninitiated, Longstreth’s voice will still take some getting used to, but it’s his newfound compositional directness and occasional deference to the soulful crooning of Amber Coffman that has made the band more digestible.
In the midst of a lengthy U.S. tour, Dirty Projectors stopped in Los Angeles for a crisp hour-long set at the Wiltern. Taking the stage behind three subtly evolving projection screens, the band opened with the jaunty, campfire warm title track from “Magellan.” It was delivered with a disarming lack of pretension and a directness that foreshadowed a setlist steeped in newer, crowd-pleasing material. The dynamically unpredictable “Offspring Are Blank” followed and Longstreth really began to let loose both in terms of his guitar playing and singing, shifting between a restrained falsetto in the verses and a full-throated howl in the chorus section. Drummer Matt Johnson violently tore into his drum kit while the female vocal trio of Coffman, Haley Dekle and Olga Bell sustained notes in otherworldly harmonic intervals.
As a live band, much less an “indie” rock band, the group has few peers when it comes to virtuosity of performance. To watch Longstreth and Coffman’s simultaneous balancing-act of guitar and vocal is to watch precision personified. Each challenging harmony, each time-displacing guitar riff, each range-shattering vocal run is delivered with such confidence and effortlessness that the utter complexity doesn’t even register with listeners. The music, in all of its intricacy, just seems to make sense in the immediate way that all great pop music does.
Coffman took her first lead vocal turn on “The Socialites,” and she strutted and danced across the stage like the unsung diva she’s always been. Longstreth’s longtime girlfriend and a loyal interpreter of his written work, Coffman truly binds the group — picking up the slack in nearly every conceivable musical department. The manic “Cannibal Resource” came next, ripping holes into the previously serene sonic setting.
Coffman, Bell and Dekle were in pristine form on recent single “Gun Has No Trigger,” undulating thick waves of melody beneath Longstreth’s fiery lead vocal line. The group capped the main portion of its set with joyously triumphant readings of “Useful Chamber” and “Unto Caesar.” “Chamber” in particular seemed to symbolize what the Dirty Projectors have now become: a group able to harness its abundant talent and vision into something relatable and downright fun. The raucous, seemingly nonsensical vocal repetitions of “Bitte orca / Orca bitte” in the choruses were echoed gleefully by the audience, which thrashed along wildly.
Dirty Projectors returned for an encore comprised of “Dance For You,” “Stillness Is The Move” and “Impregnable Question.” The reading of “Stillness” was workmanlike and a bit chaotic, but the sweet and vulnerable “Question” proved a fitting end to a performance that seemed engineered to please.