By this point in his career, Dirty Projectors bassist Nat Baldwin has carved out his sonic niche. More than just his distinct style of playing, Baldwin’s songwriting and approach to structure reveals his pop sensibility as channeled through the lens of his training under Anthony Braxton. Solo Contrabass, his debut, explored free jazz, improvisation, and modern classical with equal force and fervor, but it was with the duo of Lights Out and Enter The Winter (both on Broken Sparrow) that his writing truly began. Not content to be confined to ABACAB, the songs on those releases ranged from repetitive mantras of infidelity (‘One Last Look’) to percussion experiments with no tonality (‘Curses’), sometimes bordering or embracing that typicality of verse/chorus as needed (‘Only In My Dreams’ is a great example). Now on his fifth release, People Changes, on original Dirty Projectors label Western Vinyl – who were responsible for The Glad Fact and, more importantly, Slaves’ Graves & Ballads – Nat Baldwin has continued pushing his sound towards a true fusion of influences. Albeit brief, the set presented surpasses all previous efforts.

“Coax” isn’t quite the proper verb to describe the manner in which Baldwin approaches his never ending onslaught of arco underpinnings. Rather, he scrapes, grinds, shakes, and draws out each note no matter how short, the intentional harmonics and forced dissonance adding more than a second instrument could to the most stripped down moments. That said, when saxophones, guitars, trumpets, and drums do join the fracas it often results in muscular bursts of free jazz, Brötzmann style (‘Lifted’) or a melodic figure that is as forward moving as it is earworm-y (‘Lifted,’ again). When Baldwin lets go of structure and decides to show his avant-garde backing in full on ‘What Is There,’ the resulting timbre is reminiscent of a tenor saxophone’s upper register more than a double bass and some very extended technique, each moment used to explore a new aspect of the instrument’s limitations and natural resonance in a way that is as violently loud and outré as it is fascinating and skilled. To call the playing style utilized “sloppy” or even “just noise” not only marginalizes the man’s obvious skill, it throws away the very real emotion behind each scrape and burble. While still on the topic of emotion, here Nat’s voice has truly come into its own, now a fully matured and controlled high tenor always on the move. Comparing his melodies to those of lead Projector Dave Longstreth may be an easy grouping, but where DP’s utilize extensive hocket and huge intervallic leaps, Baldwin lets his voice flit through close groups of notes that ascend and descend in perfect timing to craft a melody as tricky as it is catchy in stark contrast to the dense vertical movement that can render even the poppiest of Bitte Orca tunes as collegiate etudes and modern Harmonielehres. Arthur Russell cover/opener ‘A Little Lost’ may be a somewhat unlikely choice for a remake, but separated from the original’s cellos and still rooted in Russell’s original arrangement and superb melody, Baldwin’s version not only stands out as a highlight of the album but of his career. Indeed, in stark contrast to the aforementioned Enter The Winter or MVP, rather the majority of this album once again focuses on the bass and Baldwin, a move that brings his clever and free lyrics to the foreground while maintaining his voice and playing with their usual strength.

People Changes certainly stands as a worthy addition to Baldwin’s increasingly rewarding discography, a synthesis of his previous work with a new era of songwriting that fuses inspiration, dedication, and ability in craft deftly. Where he fails to capture perfection is an issue of being too standoffish for pop and too left field for any sort of fusion type, instead forging a genre of contrabass and voice more suited for bookends of folk and, well, Arthur Russell’s non-disco (and non electronic) output. It’s easy to imagine this as a divisive album thanks to this aspect, and when combined with the lilting, melismatic vocals the combination is either sensuous and inviting or frustratingly simple yet overly dense in approach. Luckily, the former prevails for this listener and has left a lasting impression where his last full length, MVP, fell slightly short by focusing on Baldwin’s skill once again over his attempts to mold his work into a band setting that focuses on guitars more than his deft bow. At a scant eight tracks and about 30 minutes, the maximal reward defeats the more minimal length.