Bitte Orca Turns 10
Of all the big albums that came out in 2009, Bitte Orca might be the one that came the most out of left-field. The music that Dave Longstreth was making prior to Bitte Orca — which turns 10 this weekend — was weird: artsy-fartsy and abstract, songs that challenged the listener just as often as they hit on a sweet rush. The project was respected if not necessarily adored because it’s hard to love music that was delivered like a dissertation, albums tied up in meta-narratives and sonic puzzles.
But around 2007’s Rise Above, that all started to change. That album still had a gimmick attached — “reimaginings” of Black Flag songs — but the album cycle added Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian (during the ensuing tour) to the fold to act as foils to Longstreth’s controlled wails. The band opened up into something that was more accessible and urgent, and together they would hit on an alchemical combination that propelled some of the most ambitious and satisfying rock music to come out in the last decade.
By the time “Stillness Is The Move” was released as Bitte Orca’s lead single, it felt like the Dirty Projectors were on a different trajectory. They signed to heavyweight Domino, they had a buzzy SXSW performance where they debuted their new songs live to a rapturous audience. The stakes were different this time around, and before the album was even out the band was taking advantage of the attention, performing and collaborating with Björk and David Byrne, two of their idols and inspirations, in the months leading up to its release.
Ten years down the line, all that hype feels warranted. Bitte Orca is still stunning. It’s proven to be quite influential, too. Longstreth ended up writing the bridge for a Kanye West, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney song that hit the Top 10 and he found an admirer in Solange Knowles, who covered “Stillness Is The Move” shortly after it came out and recruited Longstreth to play on her 2016 album A Seat At The Table; Solange returned the favor by writing the hook on Dirty Projectors’ “Cool Your Heart.” Longstreth’s knack for immaculate arrangements caught the ear of the right kind of people in the years after Bitte Orca was released. His most recent album, Lamp Lit Prose, had a revolving door of just some of those artists: the Haim sisters, Empress Of, the Internet’s Syd, and Amber Mark.
Longstreth is always his best when he’s playing off another, and he built Bitte Orca as a monument to the voices of Coffman and Deradoorian (and Haley Dekle, who would go on to sing on Swing Lo Magellan as well) and the elemental power of what happens when they all come together. Bitte Orca was an attempt to please, to stop deconstructing music and just make killer songs. “I like the idea of trying to make what you love unrecognizable,” Longstreth remarked in an interview. “Although Bitte Orca is also about sort of doing the opposite of that.” It tries to capture love and light out into musical form.
That’s absolutely pretentious to say, but Dirty Projectors is absolutely a pretentious band. On the Bitte Orca back cover, Longstreth places himself in his circular continuum next to Friedrich Nietzsche, staring down the German philosopher like he was another member of the band. “The music I’m making is not terribly easy to apprehend,” Longstreth said in a New York Times profile. “The people I really admire, like William Blake and John Coltrane and Richard Wagner, had these ridiculously full universes that took their entire lives to describe.”
The music on Bitte Orca is intensely, obsessively composed. It’s big and intricate enough to encompass its own universe, but it’s also playful, approachable, and impossibly catchy. There are strings, cymbals, horns, drums, many, many guitars, and ascending melodies all crashing into each other like a great fireworks display. There’s not a second wasted, not a moment that’s not building toward something or breaking something else down. It has the mathematical fine-tuning of pop music but these are not necessarily pop songs. They’re more transcendent than that, tapping into something ancient and primal: the strength of the human voice and spirit.
Longstreth strives for perfection on Bitte Orca and he achieves it. The album is its own utopia, far removed from the bleary gray world that we live in. It’s vibrant and full of life. The communal intimacy felt between its band members is palpable: the monomaniacal leader surrounded by gorgeous girls, singing sunny harmonies. There’s a cultish glean to it, and on “Temecula Sunrise,” Longstreth invites the listener to take part in their vision: “Definitely you can come and live with us/ I know there’s a space for you in the basement/ All you gotta do is help out with the chores and dishes/ And I know you will.” Longstreth has said that song was inspired by a drive through the California city, looking at the many McMansions that dotted its landscape and wondering what it would be like if the artists were allowed to take over, create their own enclave among the faux finishing and suburban sprawl.
The band was out to remake a horizon in their own image. A lot of these songs are about running away, escaping the mundanity of what made you. “Maybe I will get a job/ Get a job as a waitress/ Maybe waiting tables in a diner/ In some remote city down the highway,” Coffman sings on “Stillness Is The Move,” grasping at simplicity in the face of life’s many complications. On “Remade Horizon,” Longstreth descends on the suburbs like a ghost: “In the backyard/ In the living room/ Residential neighborhood/ I’ve come for you.” Album closer “Fluorescent Half Dome” imagines somewhere “far beyond here, far removed from the sneering of the crowd.” If there’s any message to take away from Bitte Orca, it’s about finding a community that feels welcoming and free, embracing the ability to change your own environment.
But the best parts of Bitte Orca are the inexplicable, when all meaning breaks down and the only possible way to express everything inside is to yell as loud as you can. The oohs and ahhs and sky-scraping harmonies that populate it are all expressions of a feeling that cannot be put into words. They run the spectrum of emotion: frustration and release, resilience and hope. Aside from being technically impressive, these outpourings of sound tap into something that is primordial. Björk once remarked that the band’s music “is more curved and fluid and irregular, more like a plant in how it grows.” The album’s centerpiece is a modern epic: “Useful Chamber,” feels like Bitte Orca smushed down into six minutes of beautiful chaos. Its central refrain and album title, technically “please whale,” is as joyous as it is senseless. Even if you can’t pin down what it means, you know exactly how “bitte orca” feels.
“One of the beautiful things about music is how simple and direct a line of communication it is,” Longstreth said. “I guess what I want to do, and what we want to do, is try to make music that feels good, and feels expressive — even as it does so in a new vocabulary.” Bitte Orca makes an entirely new world, and for 41 minutes that world is bright and never-ending.
But all that perfection came at a cost. Longstreth was an exacting bandleader and pushed his band to their limits. There were rumors of grueling rehearsals and meticulous standards. “I remember being in the basement of this house in Bed-Stuy with Dave and a metronome for hours and hours,” Coffman told The New York Times around the time of the album’s release. All that hard work was fruitful, but both Coffman and Deradoorian would eventually leave the band to follow their own muses, Deradoorian with a series of expansive solo albums and Coffman with her own debut, City Of No Reply. The breakdown of Coffman and Longstreth was particularly messy, playing out in a largely one-sided conversation on Longstreth’s self-titled 2017 album, reflecting on the dissolution of their creative and romantic partnership, where the specter of Bitte Orca and the magic of these songs loomed large.
As it exists now, Bitte Orca represents Dirty Projectors in its purest form. Before reality and all its ugliness came encroaching in, Bitte Orca is the rise before the fall. Its follow-up and spiritual continuation, Swing Lo Magellan, would flirt with the apocalyptic, fixated on the murk and the uncertainty. There’s nothing uncertain about Bitte Orca, though: It’s one of the most enduring albums to emerge from 2009’s indie rock boom. Transcendent and assured, it’s a utopia that’s a joy to revisit time and time again.