The prolific experimental pop collective the Dirty Projectors return with Slaves' Graves & Ballads, their third album in a year. Originally, the album was released as two EPs early in 2004, but despite the high-concept nature of each of the EPs, all of the songs fit together well, making the album cohesive as well as diverse. The first half of Slaves' Graves & Ballads features Dave Longstreth backed by a ten-piece chamber group he founded called the Orchestral Society for the Preservation of the Orchestra. While this could seem pretentious coming from many other artists, the sense of drama the chamber group brings to Longstreth's distinctive crooning and cryptic lyrics ("the way a logo is different from an icon") actually makes it more immediate than some of the Dirty Projectors' other music. The combination of the sweeping strings, woodwinds, and brass with Longstreth's small, keening voice throws each element into even sharper contrast. The mix of majesty and intimacy in songs like the oddly alert, anticipatory "On the Beach" and "Slaves' Graves" may be theatrical, but it's distinctly emotional too; "(Throw On) The Hazard Lights" and "Hazard Lights (Reprise)" recall the primitive grandeur of The Glow, Pt. 2-era Microphones, with even more fraying around the edges. As with all Dirty Projectors music, things feel like they're on the edge of collapse. Acoustic guitars waver between delicate plucking and atonal strumming, woodwinds recorded far into the red take on feedback-like qualities, percussion punctuates the songs at unexpected moments, and Longstreth's often-garbled warbling can tend to grate. Still, the orchestral arrangements on Slaves' Graves feel like a natural resting place for the Dirty Projectors' lyrical and musical voice. The second half of Slaves' Graves & Ballads takes a very different tack, stripping the arrangements down to mostly just Longstreth's voice and guitar, with the odd bit of playful multi-tracking here and there (which works especially well on the lovely pop of "Because Your Light Is Turning Green"). This approach isn't as immediately striking as Longstreth's earlier orchestral experiments, but it does highlight the strangely soulful, timeless feel of his melodies, especially on "A Labor More Restful," "Ladies, You Have Exiled Me," and "Obscure Wisdom" -- a song title that sums up Longstreth's aesthetic well. The Dirty Projectors are still something of an acquired taste, but Slaves' Graves & Ballads is proof enough that Longstreth's twists and turns are worth following.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares