In his review of Dirty Projectors’ immensely popular 2009 opus Bitte Orca, PopMatters’ own Matthew Fiander called the record “unknowable,” professing his feeling of awe at Dave Longstreth’s restless, genre-bending creativity. True, Bitte Orca swept listeners off their feet in surprise, making converts out of many formerly immune to the draw of the band’s strange, often labyrinthine compositions. Dirty Projectors always made soulful, seemingly self-consciously “difficult” pop music, but Bitte Orca finally condensed the often disparate elements of Longstreth’s songwriting into something at once approachable and, to many ears, astonishingly unique.
So, one couldn’t be blamed for greeting this expanded edition of the album with equal parts expectation and reservation. Why risk potentially cracking Bitte Orca’s crystalline form by stretching it out over two discs? It’s a gift to fans, sure, especially the more fevered of the band’s considerably rabid devotees. But those fans already own the album in its original packaging, and will newcomers to the Projectors’ ever-growing fanclub really find themselves even more bowled over by a disc of outtakes and live recordings?
And that’s what most of the unreleased material here turns out to be. The second disc of the new Bitte Orca opens with a five-song acoustic set of album favorites recorded live at New York’s Other Music. It’s interesting to see Dirty Projectors in an acoustic setting, since so much of the band’s material gets its signature energy and drive from the way drummer Brian McOmber’s awesomely off-kilter beats play off of Longstreth’s consistently impressive finger-picked electric guitar and Nat Baldwin’s funk-laden bass work. The voices of the band—Longstreth’s signature vibrato and the otherworldly harmonies of Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman—would also seem to lend themselves to such a setting, easily translating into the gentleness of pared down arrangements.
All of that being said, these songs are shockingly boring. “Fluorescent Half Dome” can’t function without its waltzing drums or space-age keyboard hum. “Temecula Sunrise” works fine initially, since its album version already rests on Longstreth’s acoustic guitar, but the version here sacrifices that percussive explosion that comes a minute-and-a-half into the song. Without that burst of energy, it plods along without purpose. “Cannibal Resource” and “No Intention” sound downright profaned when stripped of their huge danceable beats and firebrand riffs. Only “Two Doves” works in this acoustic setting, with Deradoorian’s beautiful vocals given an even stronger spotlight in contrast to the rest of the band’s quietness.
“Ascending Melody” and “Emblem of the World”, both from the aborted Temecula Sunrise EP, finally see physical release here. The former features a nicely arpeggiated guitar melody from Longstreth, and his vocals bounce off of his female counterparts’ to nice effect. However, the song never seems to pick up steam, building to the all-too-brief excitement of its chorus and then lapsing back into cooing and noodling. “Emblem of the World” follows a similar pattern, this time with Longstreth taking the lead on the microphone while Deradoorian and Coffman dart around him. Musically, the rest of the band putter behind them, stuck in interlude mode.
“Wave the Bloody Shirt” is an actual interlude, albeit one that offers an interesting experiment in glitch-pop. Strangely, its stuttering programming might be the disc’s most pleasant moment. The inclusion of “Bitte Bitte Orca’s” minute-long swell of strings barely seems worth mentioning. The Lucky Dragons remix of the album’s—and the band’s—best song, “Stillness Is the Move”, processes Coffman’s stunning vocal performance into oblivion, unwisely choosing drone over R&B. “As I Went Out One Morning” proves to be the disc’s strongest song, as Longstreth tones down his eccentricities and his band creates a nicely tense, driving pop song. Unfortunately, it takes the entire length of the disc to get there.
Bitte Orca is at least safe in its critical esteem. It is an album people will continuously come back to, one that finally gives Longstreth and his band the cemented classic they’ve been moving toward since their inception. This expanded edition, however, should be quickly forgotten. Why not release these songs as an EP, or in some other way more practically-minded for curious fans? As it stands, the second disc offers no insight on Bitte Orca. It expands the experience of the album in no discernible way at all.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More