Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

A lot of “Top Albums of the Year” lists have been tossed around lately, collectively encompassing about as wide a selection of music as one could find in the Information Age, which is to say, just about anything. The all-too predictable Rolling Stones played it safe as usual, with U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Green Day topping the lists with mundane records. Time Magazine went out on a limb, placing prog metal heroes Mastodon and their new record Crack The Skye comfortably above Lady Gaga and Raekwon. The infamous Pitchfork seated The Flaming Lips, The xx, and the Animal Collective upon their respective thrones, as was expected. However, whether they insisted on making waves or merely staying safe in the kiddie pool, these lists all shared one common trait (and a trait that our end of the year list also shares): they all saved a prestigious place for the Dirty Projectors and their newest release Bitte Orca, and definitely not without reason.

Traditionally, the Dirty Projectors’ sound was characterized by their use of exotic experimentation, often featuring many foreign string and percussive instruments, electronic taps on vocals and even percussion, and at times an orchestral presence. Sometimes, their sound can be a bit hard to swallow, a product of Dave Longstreth’s eccentric creativity, and rarely do his older pieces possess tangible hooks that transcend the songs’ pure compositional merit.

On their recent release, Bitte Orca, they followed suit with fellow venerated indie heroes Grizzly Bear and the Animal Collective in releasing a record with blatant pop sensibilities. No shamisens or sitars or funky horn instruments here, just a lot of guitar and violin, but this new bombastic sound, somewhat reminiscent of the Talking Heads (the group even having collaborated with David Byrne), is much more cohesive and at times even emotionally moving. Like the aforementioned two groups, the Projectors managed to successfully craft catchy, infectious songs without abandoning their definitive sound.

Inconsistency typifies the Projectors’ new release; the band is not afraid to incorporate rapid tempo and time signature changes to keep your attention, seemingly jerking straying minds back towards the music, making for an unpredictable, yet rich and enjoyable musical experience. The majority of the album is more reliant on grandiose vocalizations than guitar melody, a peculiar quality for this brand of indie rock.

This vocal-centrism is significant even by pop standards and especially significant considering the band’s prior catalogue. Opener “Cannibal Resource” and “Remade Horizon” epitomize this trait, with a harmony of vocalizations that even humbles the songs’ transient guitar melodies. However, this is not at all to imply that the noble guitar falls secondary to the singing throughout the record; “Temecula Sunrise” and “Two Doves” showcase mesmerizing guitar picking that is nothing less than front-and-center, even juxtaposed to the heart-felt vocals. “Stillness Is the Move,” possibly the most popular single off the album, sounds almost like a jab at contemporary vocal pop, featuring sensual vocalizations and a seductive blend of exotic guitar and percussion.

Most notable, however, is how the song evolves; a soft bridge with pensive lyrics followed by a simple infusion of violin in the latter half of the song changes the superficial into something profound. The high point of this album is undoubtedly the chorus of “Useful Chamber,” which, following an amelodic bridge of hushed vocals and drumming, explodes in a glorious atmosphere, dense with textured percussion, a flurry of guitar, and shouted singing of “Bitte Orca, Orca Bitte!” from which the album derives its name.

Despite the record’s numerous strengths, it still retains its selection of problems, however minor. The post-chorus vocal arrangement on “Useful Chamber,” for example, sounds a bit scathing, a stark contrast to the excellent chorus and a bit of a letdown. Thankfully, this largely superfluous section is also brief, so the disturbance is easily forgivable. “Fluorescent Half Dome,” the closing track, can be a bit slow-going and feels somewhat anticlimactic, an especially critical point, considering it’s the final track on the record.

For a track that is otherwise dominated by occasional aggressive drum fills, the relatively subdued guitar and singing feels incongruous and, to the record’s detriment, forgettable. As resolution to the record, however, “Fluorescent Half Dome” can be seen as a satisfying “cool-down” period and its frailty as a standalone track is largely negligible.

The Dirty Projectors’ inability to be classified under one genre is merely a testament to their astounding musical diversity. Bitte Orca, easily the strongest record of the band’s wide discography, is the culmination of a history of intrepid experimentation (and perhaps gall). Not a single track meanders too long in pretentious self-indulgence, a trait for which Longstreth is often resented, and few are without their hooks. Whatever “Please Orca” means, I’m sure any mammal would be pleased to hear this joyous masterpiece.

by Mason “Biological Mystery” McGough


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