“If you grow up in the river, the river’s all you know.”
Let’s get the rather strange yet essential set-up out of the way first. Stereogum writer Brandon Stosuy invited Dirty Projectors and Bjork, mutual fans of each other’s music, to collaborate on a benefit show performance at a New York bookstore. After discussing what to play, the two camps decided to collaborate on brand-new material for the performance, instead of just cranking out their greatest hits.
Later that month, Dirty Projectors vocalist Amber Coffman witnessed a family of whales on the Northern California coast near Mount Wittenberg, and Projectors songwriter/frontman/crazy man Dave Longstreth connected the two ideas by writing a 20-minute song cycle about the experience, designating each vocal performer a corresponding whale character. Longstreth plays the part of Coffman; Coffman and fellow vocalists Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle assume the roles of baby whales; and Bjork, the mother of all weird, alternative vocalists, appropriately plays the family matriarch. Mount Wittenberg Orca is the result, and the proceeds will be donated to the National Geographic Society, helping create “international marine protected areas”.
Helping marine life is certainly a worthwhile cause, but as much as Bjork and Dirty Projectors want to raise awareness about whales, Mount Wittenberg Orca will ultimately raise awareness about their music, which is a worthwhile cause all on its own. As an encore for Dirty Projectors’ highly acclaimed 2009 full-length Bitte Orca, Mount Wittenberg Orca is a knockout. It works completely, even when removed from its unorthodox origins.
Then again, “unorthodox” is pretty standard stuff for Longstreth and company. Their music has a tendency to mix the extremely foreign and experimental with the catchy and familiar. Longstreth is a master of mood and color, pairing the most unusual of musical elements (“How about a string quartet, and then we’ll do a electro beat…or how about some white noise?!”). A track like “Stillness Is the Move” from Bitte Orca is their most pop moment, with its R&B vocal stylings and bright production, but the twisted guitar figures and layers of sound keep it firmly planted in the strange.
On Mount Wittenberg Orca, both the experimental and the pop tendencies are toned down somewhat, due in large part to the template. Here, the distorted batshit guitar solos and drum kit explosions are replaced with acoustics, in keeping with the original bookstore performance. There are no surefire breakthrough singles, either. Instead, this EP finds the band trying out something a bit new for them: sonic consistency. With most of the noise and half of the layers of instrumentation removed, Mount Wittenberg Orca ends up giving priority to flow and ease instead of shock and flair.
The players revel in this new setting. Nat Baldwin’s acoustic bass sounds warmer but still powerful. Brian Mcomber, one of indie rock’s most unique drummers, still explores the outer limits of his kit, but this time focuses more on nuance, favoring snare rim clicks and bass drum accents over his trademark bursts of John Bonham-like thunder. Longstreth still plays like a classical guitarist who fronts a noise outfit on the weekends, exploring more of his melodic fingerpicking previously displayed on tracks like Bitte Orca‘s “Two Doves”.
Bjork fits in perfectly, which is no surprise. She and Longstreth have mutually odd melodic sensibilities, so much so that an album of Bjork covering Dirty Projectors songs (or vice versa) really wouldn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary. It’s no wonder, then, that their styles mesh so seamlessly, almost to the point where Bjork simply sounds like another from Longstreth’s gang of female vocalizers. When she takes lead vocals (“On and Ever Onward”, “Sharing Orb”, “All We Are”), it’s clear that her melodies could have been written by Longstreth or all on her own.
“On and Ever Onward” immediately demonstrates the breathtaking synchronicity between the two camps. Bjork throws in the line “Tempur Pedic is the ocean,” which, with both its vivid imagery of being swallowed in bed and strange product placement (think back to Longstreth’s Gatorade plug on Bitte‘s “Temecula Sunrise”), lets you know you’re in good hands. The gang chant “Our love is all around us”, atop a bed of bouncy bass and arpeggiated acoustic guitar, is probably the happiest they’ve ever sounded. Listen to it through headphones and feel the plink of the guitar strings, the encompassing vocals disorienting and enlightening with precision and warm breath.
I first heard “When the World Comes to an End” on a Twitter video posted by Roots drummer Questlove, showing the band rehearsing the track backstage with nothing more than an unplugged electric guitar and the surround-sound ping-ponging vocals of Coffman, Deradoorian, and Dekle. Questlove was so stoked by the performance, he could hardly keep his camera phone still, frequently capturing his own entranced reaction shots.
You can’t blame the guy. It was a startling, arresting performance for such a limiting environment, especially for a band thriving on sonic chaos. Luckily, the intimacy and simplicity of that performance has carried over to the studio version. Dirty Projectors have always been a “headphones” band, but seriously: put on your nicest pair, sit back, and marvel at the encompassing magic of the wordless “ahhs” and “oohs”. There’s also a spirally electric guitar solo which, along with lead vocals on all tracks, is the only occasion of overdubbing on the album.
The claps, drum clicks, and stereo-panned vocal undulations in “Beautiful Mother” are quintessential Dirty Projectors, not all that different than some of the brighter moments on Bitte Orca. It’s a perfect summation of what this EP does best: demonstrating a warmer, more spontaneous Dirty Projectors, and quite possibly an even more exciting one, if that’s at all possible.
That Mount Wittenberg Orca is an acquired taste goes without saying. Yet no one else makes music like this.