Words About Music
Amber Coffman first found herself in blogs and online pro-indie magazines when she joined the lineup of NY-based experimental rock collective Dirty Projectors, a group that was formed by pop-madman Dave Longstreth. Coffman’s vocals would help define the band’s sound on their three greatest albums, “Rise Above,” “Bitte Orca,” and “Swing Lo Magellan.” Unfortunately, Coffman and Longstreth had the misfortune of being romantic partners as well as musical partners, which inevitably ended in acrimonious bitterness and heartbreak.
Fast forward to 2017, and now Dave is the only official member of Dirty Projectors again, having released a (fantastic) self-titled album earlier this year. That album features mostly lyrics about his relationship with Amber and how it ended, making it feel like I was listening to his personal diaries. He also talked in interviews about how he helped co-write and co-produce Amber’s debut solo album, and how the two haven’t spoken really since they finished recording it.
The story of Dave Longstreth and Amber Coffman has been a strange one this year, and with “City of No Reply,” it only gets stranger. It’s going to be natural to compare this record to “Dirty Projectors,” but these are two very different beasts that don’t have too much in common sonically, save a bizarre meta-moment I’ll get to later on in the review.
The album kicks off with Coffman’s debut solo single, “All to Myself,” a beautifully orchestrated, moody track that is uplifting lyrically. Much like “Dirty Projectors” kicks off with a memorable couplet, “City of No Reply” kicks off with the line “I can’t just sit around feeling upset/Dwelling on my loneliness.” This song is fiercely independent, and serves as a nice foil to Longstreth’s songs about abandonment and victimhood. I like the creative way Coffman crafts her lyrics here, and this song in general has a fantastic groove and weird backing instrumentation which sounds like layers of vocals through a vocoder or autotuned microphone. It’s like an old-school R&B/soul track, except all the backup vocalists are just Amber and Dave. I fucking love the harmonies that pervade this track, especially on the chorus. It’s great to hear that Amber’s compositional talent hasn’t suffered in the 5 years since we last heard her sing on a full-length project.
“No Coffee,” the album’s second single and second song in the track-listing, has sort of a reggae vibe to it, except the guitar upstrokes come on the downbeat. The R&B/soul vibe continues here. In fact, I’d argue that this song sounds like it’d sound at home in a musical of some kind, especially with Coffman’s evocative lyrics about not needing coffee because she’s so tired from lack-of-sleep that she feels wide awake. This track is a bit darker than the one preceding it, as it presents an attitude of dependency and devotion that anyone in a relationship can identify. This is very much a breakup song describing the immediate post-breakup feeling, but it does so with an affirming set of instrumental backing, complete with backup vocals from former Dirty Projectors member Haley Dekle. It’s like the first family reunion after mom and dad divorced.
The reunion continues on the next track “Dark Night,” which, in addition to Longstreth and Dekle, also features former Dirty Projectors co-vocalist Angel Deradoorian. Moreover, we’ve got Red Hot Chili Peppers percussionist Mauro Refosco slamming the skins later on in the track. I like the quirky, antiquated synth sounds Longstreth goes for, which evoke an ’80s new wave/synth pop vibe, despite the continued forays into R&B, soul, and reggae that pop up throughout. This track is more life affirming than the previous one, with its message of moving past the bad vibes of the present and looking toward the bright light of the future. If we are continuing with the breakup narrative, it seems to denote the point where Amber and Dave were able to reconcile and become friends after their romantic relationship ended, which was clearly fruitful considering the sessions for this album came a couple years after the breakup.
Coffman’s strong, confident, yet breathy vocal continues to dominate on “City of No Reply,” the album’s eponymous track. I think this song is about a desire to leave a small, rural environment in favor of a loud, booming urban environment to distract one from their fears and insecurities. But, as Amber suggests with the song’s chorus and title, being in a big city like New York for too long can become a burden with its carelessness and cold, gentrified complacency. This isn’t my favorite track on the album, because there are some lyrics I’m not super into, but I definitely find it enjoyable enough to not distract from the flow or suggest a massive dip in quality.
The next track, “Miss You,” kicks off with some prog-rock synthesizer warbling, with some soft drums and ambient keyboards kicking off the track’s solemn groove. At this point though, I wish Amber would find more interesting ways of singing about love and companionship, because despite the excellent production and sonic qualities to this track, the lyrics are mostly ignorable. The line “Funny how no one talks anymore/Caught up on the phone in the store/They like to be on their own” sounds like the sort of thing someone would make up for a Father John Misty roast as a joke-lyric, but no, it pops up on the debut album by a member of one of the most brilliant bands of the 2000s. I have nothing wrong with the progressive pop that takes place on this record; in fact, I enjoy it quite a bit. I just wish it was supplemented with a more unpredictable set of lyrics.
Thankfully, things improve on the album’s midpoint song, “Do You Believe,” a beautiful, relaxing track with some more depressing lyrics and brilliant harmonies. The chorus presents Amber at arguably her most bitter, with the line “How is playing it safe working out for you?” She turns a biting question into a sweet, pleasant chorus. I love it when an artist takes a sad sentiment and turns it into a more positive sonic feel. In some ways, the instrumental arrangement on this track reminds me of Sigur Rós, but with a bit of a jazzier element to it.
I also love the quirky bass-playing and slightly-off drum machines on the track “If You Want My Heart,” the album’s fourth single. The soundplay continues to be fantastic on this song, and I like Amber’s lyrics here about needing the other person in the relationship to be open about their devotion and dedication in order to truly be deserving of her love. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. “Baby, if you want my heart,” she sings, “first, you’ve gotta come through the door.” The song overall is a bit kitschy, especially with the bridge toward the end, but I am generally pleased with it, and I think it definitely works as a single.
Speaking of single, “Nobody Knows” was also one! It’s also another thematically dark, defeatist track about wallowing in your own negativity for a little while. The song itself, though, isn’t the most unique or creative in the track-listing, nor does it have the most intelligent chorus. I feel like this song could have been left on the cutting room floor, especially considering how much resemblance it bears some other ones on here which deal in the same subject matter.
The next track is a bit of an improvement. “Under the Sun” reminds me of Angel Olsen’s contemporary throwback sound with Carly Rae Jepsen’s… also contemporary throwback sound. But, of course, this track also manages to sound like something neither of them would ever put out. I like the instrumentation here, as well as Coffman’s melodies and vocals. I think one of her strongest vocal performances on the album can actually be found on this track in particular, even if it presents a bit more of her typically straightforward lyrical style.
I like the glitchy embellishments on the next song, too, “Brand New,” which is something of a duet between Amber and co-musical-contributor Nicholas Krgovich, who plays piano on this song as well. I fucking love this song as well, with its subtle quirks and its play on the usual piano ballad/duet. The instrumental reminds me a bit of Aphex Twin’s ambient works, which is high fucking praise for Coffman, Krgovich, and Longstreth for writing and composing this track this way. This song shows some perspective from Coffman, who sings about how the breakup has turned all of her hurt feelings into hatred, as she reflects in hindsight on how she should have known to stay away. Harsh shit, but honest and still somehow an affirmative, progressive song. I love the song’s outro as it builds and Coffman delivers the crushing, independent set of lyrics: “Oh it’s my turn, that’s for sure/From now on I’m gonna live for me/Do I regret the time that I wasted?/I wanna thank you for setting me free.”
Now, remember way earlier when I mentioned somewhat of a meta-moment to behold on this album? What I was referring to is the final song, “Kindness,” which uses the same instrumental that Longstreth used earlier this year for the song “I See You,” the final song on the self-titled Dirty Projectors record. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of this being done on two prominent, disparate breakup albums, but I do love Amber’s take on the track, with some of the album’s best lyrics popping up on here to close the record off with a brilliant finish. I think my favorite line is “This love wants not to hinder our evolution/It only wants what’s best for you/The best for me.” Much like “I See You,” “Kindness” has a message of unity and friendship in the aftermath of an ugly breakup, which I’m glad the two were able to sustain long enough to create this album, especially these two tracks. I think it’s pretty cool to have two versions on the same theme pop up on both albums, even if Amber and Dave aren’t on the best of terms currently.
Overall, I think this is a great album. It may suffer here and there from its overbearing consistency and some lackluster lyricism, but I am floored with the album’s sonic interplay and Coffman’s consistently on-point vocals, melodies, and harmonies. There are some fantastic songs on here, and a couple that just aren’t quite up to par. But, there are far worse debut albums out there to behold, and as it stands, “City of No Reply” is pretty damn good. I’m going to be very interested to hear Amber’s next album, especially if it’s entirely Longstreth-free. I think she deserves to have her own limelight, because it’s impossible to talk about this record without talking about her ex-partner who not only helped write the entire thing, but also put out an arguably more enjoyable (at least to me) album earlier in 2017. Despite these complaints, though, this is a great and worthwhile listen, even if it doesn’t pop up in my favorite records of the year list by year’s end. Don’t let it slip by you if you haven’t heard it yet.
SCORE — 7.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — All to Myself, No Coffee, Dark Night, Do You Believe, If You Want My Heart, Under the Sun, Brand New, Kindness