Review Summary: Equally experimental and accessible, Bitte Orca is the breakthrough that Dirty Projectors needed.
I admit that I'm a huge fan of Brooklyn/Bed-Stuy avant-rockers Dirty Projectors. Their 2007 offering, Rise Above, was jaw dropping to me and easily made my Top 5. And the albums before that have all become perennial favorites to me, especially the EP-pairing Slaves' Graves & Ballads. But Bitte Orca may just be the best thing Dave Longstreth and company has to date.
Before reviewing the album proper, the cover art must be discussed in brief. Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian stand, soft focused on one another. One in blue, one in red, neither looking at anything. This is a direct copy of the aforementioned Slaves' Graves cover, albeit in photo form. Why does this matter? Because the pictures both summarize Longstreth's concept of "dirty projecting." Paying attention and honoring presence while holding spite and not being interested is dirty projecting. That is an important key to the overall concept of the album, as well as the entirety of the Projectors' output. But enough yakking, let's boogie.
Cannibal Resource immediately strikes your earholes with new and unexpected sounds from the band. Wah-wah guitar? Check. A live, Albini-esque production style? Check. More outrageous female harmonies? Check. "Look around at everyone, everyone looks alive and waiting" croons Dave, soaked in a loose room reverb. As the song builds to the short bridge, it becomes apparent that the band is using a combination of older and newer styles of writing - the song has the African and R&B sensibility of New Attitude and Rise Above, but adheres to the older songwriting style of The Glad Fact. When Temecula Sunrise opens with delicate acoustic guitars, it's a splash of cool water after the layers of distorted guitars. However, the powerful and uplifting chorus of "High Temecula sunrise!" quickly brings in the full band with a flourish. Just as the previous song, this one deals with daily life and waiting for somebody. Whereas Cannibal Resource was about perceived anger and misunderstanding, Temecula Sunrise is all about love. The love between two people, between these people and a friend, between the sun and life. And it is nice.
The Bride begins a three-song suite of hate/love/hate songs that vaguely segue. Banality and nihilism are the themes of The Bride, speaking of mistakes and realizing that life is worthless. Just as Temecula Sunrise offered up the dichotomy of acoustic to electric instrumentation, so does The Bride. Stillness Is The Move, however, is all about joy. And as the lead single, this song may be the closest to a radio jam that the band comes to. Amber's sweet, Mariah-inspired, vocals offset the spiky guitar line and '80s compressed snare drum. Bizarrely edited backing vocals accompany each chorus, and the bridge's questions about space, time, and relationships starting and ending hearken to the "loves me, loves me not" dilemma of so many flowers. "I know we'll make it, I know the way," chimes the chorus, solidifying the topic of an undying and ever changing love that rolls with the punches. As strings melt away the groove and segue into Two Doves, Amber steps back and lets only Dave's guitar and Angel's voice in to compliment a sophisticated orchestral arrangement. "Don't confront me with my failure...call on me," provide the antithesis to the love born comparisons of kisses to wine, hair to eagles, and the sad realization that "...our bed is a failure." After the confirmation that everything will be fine, Two Doves is a heartbreaking look into reality. Dirty projecting leads to a false love.
The second half of the disc has songs about being with the one you love. Centerpiece Useful Chamber weaves a tale about leaving behind everything and focusing on your infatuation. "Far away with you...we'll sail away to someplace new," bridges the first verse's image of a waiting woman to the titular chorus. "Bitte orca! Orca bitte!" shouts Dave. "Please orca, orca please." "Call to me, soft and sweet, cool the fire that burns in me, catch me when I lose control," he asks of the one he loves. All backed up by a simple backing of vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, drum machine, and string synthesizer, these statements are yearning, pleading, and beautiful, asking nothing more than a body to be there. Useful Chamber's multi-section formula bestows new life to the album, and showcases the superb guitar and vocals of the band. No Intention's simple groove seems to be the first true slow jam of the band's career that actually can be danced to and not seizured to. Remade Horizon has the most complex vocal section ever written by Longstreth, and hints awkwardly of seeing a partner in medicine, markets, cormorants, and parking lots. Closer Fluorescent Half-Dome is Prince meets Fela as a scale-climbing bass line, The Beautiful Ones style drums and vocal inflections, and a plaintive vocal line all combine to sing a song to a dome of light. Not as bizarre as comparing a woman to a darkened car, finch, hill, or a city filled with reggaeton and horchata, but what has been normal in this band's similes and metaphors?
Don't let the idea of weird lyrics put you off, though, for Bitte Orca is a step in the right direction. There's enough of the band's sonic calling cards for older fans, and enough pop sensibility for newcomers. If the previous albums of the band were a turn off, this is the one to start with. If the previous albums were as good as it got to you, then expect something better. Bitte Orca may be the most rewarding listen in indie rock so far this year, and will certainly be one of the best albums in a year that has had a remarkable output thus far.
[Stream the entire album here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104578357]