Dirty Projectors’ bassist, Nat Baldwin, has created an experimental folk/jazz sound showing influence from his training under jazz genius, Anthony Braxton, and his involvement with the Dirty Projectors. Baldwin’s fourth full-length album, 2011’s People Changes, channels Andrew Bird’s imaginative instrumentalism and Fanfarlo’s somber yet sharp storytelling. However, the New Hampshire native has a sound largely his own. During a brief stint at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT, Baldwin met a group of Wesleyan University students who also studied under Anthony Braxton. Many of his early recording projects were collaborations with Hartt or Wesleyan students. Most of the tracks on People Changes were recorded with live vocals and bass, a decision that was made with Baldwin’s talented friends and collaborators, whom were chosen in order to maintain an earnest live sound.
The double bass is not an instrument normally associated with pop music. As the lowest-pitched stringed instrument, it produces a woody, deep, often ominous sound that’s perfect for jazz trios and modern classical pieces but not usually heard on the radio. It’s also rather quiet; most large orchestras feature anywhere from four to eight bassists. The double bass is versatile and often soulful, and the solo material of Nat Baldwin proves pop—albeit experimental, chamber-leaning pop—should lean more on its unique sound. Baldwin spends most of his time as the bass player (both electric and standup) for Dirty Projectors, and he’s also lent his skills to acts as varied as Vampire Weekend and Department of Eagles. But it’s a different instrument that shines on his own solo material, especially the gorgeous minimalism of 2011’s People Changes: his voice. It’s both unfair and a huge compliment to compare Baldwin’s alluring tenor to Dirty Projectors bandmate Dave Longstreth, but you can hear it in the way he stretches out vowel sounds, strains to hit the high notes, and with his cover of Arthur Russell’s landmark cello-and-voice jam “A Little Lost.” Russell is an obvious touchstone for People Changes—the sparse arrangements of tracks like the weightless “Real Fakes” and “The Same Things” recall his solo cello album World of Echo. “Weights,” though it might be his most conventional song, is also the most powerful, a ballad that could conceivably soundtrack the climatic love scene of a WB teen drama. Most of People Changes is composed of voice and bass, but when Baldwin adds extra layers—saxophone, guitar, and pounding percussion on “Lifted” and airy woodwinds on “Weights”—it’s chaotic, disorienting and flat-out beautiful. Baldwin constantly straddles the divide between modern classical and modern pop, challenging the listeners’ notion of what should fit into either box. There’s even a bit of free-jazz spaz to “What Is There” that hints at a radical new direction. At this point nothing would surprise, but with a résumé so spotless, we’d love to hear the outcome.