Premature Evaluation: Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Let’s start with the obvious (or at least obvious for anyone who’s heard it): Bitte Orca is, on its own terms, a stunning album. Although the excitement over the record started long before, at least as far back as the first time we’d heard the bright and beautiful “Temecula Sunrise,” it’s fair to say that “Stillness Is The Move” put the anticipation into overdrive. If not for its ample, arty R&B charms and surprising star-turn for the cut’s lead vocalist Amber Coffman, then simply for what it signaled: This was a jam welcoming listeners to the party. In the world of Dirty Projectors, this is a big deal.
Don’t get it twisted: this isn’t a pop record. (It’s not an R&B record, either.) But its nine songs do play like the pay-off for joining Dave Longstreth on his years of recorded self-discovery. Dude’s always had a restless mind: At whichever discographic point of entry you chose, his budding brilliance had been readily apparent, casting a revolving door of adept musicians in service of wildly ambitious, cross-pollinated sonic documents. The Glad Fact presented conventional song lengths cloaked in singular and unconventional songwriting sense (and form); The Getty Address, a concept album about a day in the life of one Don Henley, delved into gothic choral arrangements and snatches of R&B; Slaves’ Graves & Ballads was a split of beautifully composed symphonic pieces and, well, bedroom ballads; and etc.
The New Attitude EP served as a schizophrenic survey of Dirty Projectors previous touchstones, and it also seemed like something of a reboot: With the subsequent, excellent Rise Above LP, Dirty Projectors reemerged as a rock quartet and delivered a “remembered” reworking of Black Flag’s Damaged LP. There were taps to experimental elements of past releases, but they were streamlined for this line-up. The words weren’t Dave’s, but the radically sublime, spiraling, snaking, and thrashing music was nothing but, bringing new light to the hardcore prose as well as the rock quartet’s sonic possibilities. Dave fully embraced his modified soukous-style of guitar playing, lining those fractured shards of six-string with breathtaking vocal arrangements. It jammed.
And Bitte Orca is building on that moment. (See: maintaining Rise Above’s touring line-up: Amber Coffman on guitar, vocals; Angel Deradoorian on bass, vocals; Brian McComber on drums.) Given how obtuse their catalogue has been, the accessibility of “Stillness” can’t be overlooked: It’s their “House Jam,” their “My Girls,” their “Two Weeks”; it’s the moment these Brooklyn-based art rockers gave their listeners a wet, pop-infused kiss. Stylistically it’s an outlier, but spiritually it makes perfect sense as a lead single. You don’t have to go any further than the sunny opening grooves and lyric of lead track “Cannibal Resource” to hear it (“Look around at everyone…”): They want your ears. Instead of warding you off with its compositional heft, Bitte Orca pulls you in with its grooves and upbeat disposition, putting the brilliance in service of savvy structural shifts and peripheral nuance.
The previously heard “Cannibal Resource” and “Temecula Sunrise” set that scene, digging into deep backbeats and a general mode of sunshine. Dave’s dexterous acoustic guitar workout opens “Temecula” before the full band bursts in, colored in no small part by Angel and Amber’s seraphic vocals. There are some gorgeous vocal moments lacing this entire record, really, but the true jaw-dropper comes two-and-a-half minutes into the glorious “Remade Horizon,” when the song’s main motif is deconstructed for one voice, then joined by another and catapulted into the stratosphere. The syncopated, tag-team arpeggiation is dizzying; it’s the sort of moment that makes you remember where you were when you first heard it (we were here), and makes the similar turn on Rise Above’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme” look like kiddie play time.
Every song brings something to the table (“No Intention” is the cousin to “Stillness,” spangly African guitar line underpinning a handclapping groove and, surprise, gorgeous vocals; “The Bride” a shifty and unpredictable classically rooted piece, etc.), but if you want the full thrust of the album’s ambition in one song, cue up the triumphant “Useful Chamber” and sit tight for six-and-a-half minutes. The dissection: warped synths and glissando vocals; fingerpicked guitars interrupted with crashes of electric ones; fat backbeats yielding to skittering bursts of harmonized guitars; a noisy meltdown bleeding into a vocal splay from the sirens that is at first incisive, then caressing. “I’m caught up in a storm that I don’t need no shelter from,” Dave sings. Hey, us too. “All I want and all I need right here with me.” It’s a song about the calming effect of love on a mind moving at warp speed, wrapped in six-and-a-half minutes of pure sonic prowess. One of the lyrics gives the album its name, and that makes a lot of sense. (Also: Brian McComber’s playing here and on all over this album deserves mention, so — consider it mentioned.)
As discussed, the Bitte album cover is a reprise of the 2004 double-EP release Slaves’ Graves & Ballads, casting Amber and Angel in place of Dave’s doodles. This also makes a lot of sense. Not only do Amber and Angel shine on this record, but many of Bitte’s songs fuse Slaves’‘ orchestral- and guitar-based halves into a cohesive whole. And nowhere more so than on the Angel-fronted “Two Doves,” setting memorable similes (“Your hair is like an eagle’s, eyes are like two doves / But our bed is like a failure”) to painterly fingerpicking and scurrying orchestral accompaniment. The strings also turn up elsewhere (bowed on “Stillness,” plucked on “No Intention”) but they really wrap the record right on the Prince-ly halftime of “Fluorescent Half Dome,” the album’s soulful sunset. End scene. And start it again.
So yes, you don’t need to know a thing about Dirty Projectors to find this album pleasurable. These are songs first, art experiments second. But with Bitte Orca, the scattershot fuzz of Dave Longstreth’s previous output has snapped startlingly into focus. All the smarts are there, but it’s almost like he finally wants everyone to listen. In him we find a bandleader who fuses the anxious border-crossing intelligence of David Byrne, Frank Zappa’s eye toward progressive arrangement and innovative guitar heroics, and Prince’s ability to make music you might want to fuck to. That’s a mouthful, but there’s a reason he’s getting hugs from indie rock’s elder statesmen and women. This is a great album from a great mind. Listen up.