Music

Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca

There are two things you can say about Bitte Orca, and feel almost certain of what you're saying: It is the most guitar-driven Dirty Projectors album yet, and it is also a brilliant piece of music. Everything else is up for debate.


Dirty Projectors

Bitte Orca

US Release: 2009-06-09
Label: Domino
UK Release: 2009-06-08
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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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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