[10 June 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
For those who have followed Dirty Projectors from the beginning, there had to be some feeling that the band was working towards something, some notion that there was more to their tangled musical constructions. Not that earlier works like The Getty Address or The Glad Fact weren’t stunning in their originality and breadth of sounds, but they came off more as sounds you were running into than ones you were meshing with as you listened. Their hyper-compositions, with all their edgy tangents, didn’t exactly invite you in.
But 2007’s Rise Above marked a turning point for Dave Longstreth’s band. By re-imagining Black Flag’s Damaged—which on paper seems like a fool’s errand—Longstreth not only mined deep feeling out of those gritty anthems, but he also revealed his own personal connection to music. We were being let into his world a little more, and with Bitte Orca, we are now fully immersed in all things Longstreth.
What makes the album so astounding is its ability to be accessible, but only in its own enigmatic way. So, it doesn’t have the immediate hook of more straight-up pop music, but this is Dirty Projectors we’re talking about. And their crumbling, shape-shifting compositions can only be so catchy. But on Bitte Orca they are as infectious as they get, and Longstreth and his band seem happy to reach out and bring you in. He invites us, on opener “Cannibal Resource”, to “look around at everyone, everyone’s alive and waiting.” Quite a communal statement to start the record, but it sets the tone for an album that does, unsurprisingly, make you work to figure it out, but while you’re doing that you’re also dancing, smiling, even laughing. In other words, you are feeling this music throughout.
The first half of the album is all morning-sun brightness, braced by “Cannibal Resource” and the brilliant “Temecula Sunrise”. To hear Longstreth turn that awkward titular phrase into a gliding hook in the chorus is a feat in and of itself. But the song itself gives early signs that the album is taking on a sort of deconstructed soul sound. “Temecula Sunrise” is, after all, a sort of slow jam love song. And it has it’s own sort of goofy charm, as Longstreth sings, “And what hits the spot like Gatorade? You and me baby, hitting the spot all night.” And that is not just the start of the song’s nerdy but magnetic humor. On “Stillness is the Move”—maybe the best song in the Dirty Projectors’ catalog, period—Longstreth laces the track with his intricate spider web of guitar notes, while Amber Coffman turns in some stunning vocals, and paints herself as a rangy torch singer. The soul feel continues later into the record with the blue light shuffle of “Fluorescent Half-Dome” and the danceable rhythmic stomp of “No Intention”. Mixed within these tracks is plenty of other genre hopping, with “Two Doves” splitting the difference between the mannered compositions of earlier Dirty Projectors work and the lush schmaltzy folk of someone like Mickey Newbury.
But to assign genres on Bitte Orca is only to give titles to the unknowable, to name the population of the frenzied pen of muses buried deep in Longstreth’s mind. No track proves the futility of trying to pin this all down better than “Useful Chamber”, the six-plus minute track that basically builds itself up as a strong but necessarily uneven foundation for the rest of the record. It starts with a glitchy-synth coolness that eventually builds to a big, rock band freak out before settling into a beautiful interplay between Longstreth’s twisting croon and the ghostly lilting of Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. It’s a song that throws you off the scent of the album’s trajectory, and in that way cements Longstreth’s intentions. He wants you to join him in a room called Bitte Orca, but he’s not going to turn on the lights just yet.
The one thing you can say about this album, and feel almost certain of what you’re saying, is that this is the most guitar-driven Dirty Projectors album to date. No one plays like Longstreth, and he uses that to his advantage. He overplays, speeding notes past the song’s tempo before slowing back into the track. He climbs the neck in towering crescendos, he plops uncanny chord phrasings in batches throughout tracks, and on “No Intention” and “Useful Chambers” he drops in solos that are so unwieldy and unnerving, the beg you to go back and listen to them again.
But, most importantly here, he never lets his noodling overtake the song structures. Bitte Orca is made of nine distinct and powerful songs, and perhaps that is what makes it more inviting than earlier albums. But fans of the older work shouldn’t feel slighted or let down by the new album, because this isn’t a simplification of their complex sound. It’s a tightening of that sound, and in compression Longstreth’s musical vision has taken on a wonderful heft and an alarming tunefulness. Those older fans should, though, get ready to clear some room. Because, in the wake of an album as wonderful and singular as Bitte Orca, there’s going to be a lot more people coming to that party in the dark.