Dirty Projectors: “Bitte Orca”

bitte orca

This isn’t the first we’ve heard from the Dirty Projectors in 2009: Earlier this year, Dave Longstreth’s art-pop trio appeared with David Byrne on a selection from the Dark was the Night compilation. Now, just days after the release of full-length Bitte Orca, the band is once again gearing up for an appearance with Byrne, this time for a full set on his own personal Bonaroo stage. Byrne, it’s safe to say, is quite the fan of these guys, and it’s easy to see why: If nothing else, Bitte Orca establishes Longstreth as the heir to the Talking Heads’ legacy– specifically, of compressing complex, sophisticated music into tight and (relatively) accessible pop packaging.

In fact, the Dirty Projectors’ music is so deeply rooted in  a particular classic rock tradition– the geeky one– that it’s almost hard to believe they’ve become 2009’s It Band in indie rock circles. Almost. They’re certainly a different beast than Grizzly Bear, a similarly historically-minded and pop-savvy band who recently broke out in a big way with the hipster set. Grizzly Bear, for all the obvious pop smarts evident in songs like “Two Weeks,” are essentially interested in sound more than anything else, in capturing a particularly haunting, nostalgic haze. The Dirty Projectors, on the other hand, record songs that sound crisp and clean, albeit complicated and at times downright convoluted. Their music is less about the depth of the recording or the mood of the production, more about the twists and turns, the dynamic ebb and flow, of the songs themselves. Keenly interested in form and structure, they’re a closer match for Animal Collective, but with a sound that’s considerably heftier and more concrete than AC’s bright and shiny art-pop.

Of course, I’ve spent half of this review talking about other bands, which hints at the biggest problem facing the Projectors: With a career as strange and as varied as theirs has been, it’s difficult to say anything specific about who the band is or what they’re about. Their identity is somehow elusive, their intentions tough to ascertain. That doesn’t mean that their music is bad; at its worst, it’s unfocused and indulgent, but at its best, it’s simply elusive. And that might be the best way to describe the artsy pop of Bitte Orca, an expertly-constructed pop album that shifts tones and tempos, styles and sounds so frequently that it never seems to land on anything resembling a foundation, but instead maintains a rather mysterious kind of movement.

Which, of course, makes it enthralling, not just because its shifts are so numerous, but because its construction is so ingenius. This is pop music made with a composer’s sense of dynamics, where the multi-part epic “Useful Chamber” adheres to its own peculiar logic even as the irresistibly off-kilter R&B groover “Stillness is the Move” masterfully creates and maintains tension and dynamic variance throughout its five-minute run. “Remade Horizon” is a composition so odd that it initially sounds random but then suddenly clicks and sounds brilliant; “Temecula Sunrise,” meanwhile, is a sunny and bright guitar song that betrays a deep knowledge of classic rock and power pop alike.

The more berserk tracks orchestrate noise into something that sounds perfectly logical and even beautiful, and Longstreth’s voice– falling somewhere between Dan Bejar and Wayne Coyone– brings a certain mania to the proceedings. When the album slows down– on the psychedelic swirl of  “Two Doves,” the R&B slow-jam “No Intention,” and the epic closer “Fluorescent Half Dome”– you can see its foundation a bit clearer, but that makes it no less impressive or beguiling: This is music constructed from bits and pieces of the last, oh, fifty years of pop music, and its careful arrangement reveals not only a freewheeling imagination, but also a strong sense of roots.

Lyrically, the album is a riddle, or, rather, a series of riddles; they even quote the German film Wings of Desire at one point. Longstreth seems to invoke a journey, both in the narrative sense and in the sense of moving beyond borders and boundaries, and as such the album could be about either love or the creative life, but is probably intended to be a bit of both. Not that I’d wager any money on any interpretations of these songs: Like the music, the lyrics are pleasantly elusive and shrouded in mystery, and their construction is at times quite impressive, but they keep the band’s true motives at a distance, never quite letting us know who they are or what they stand for. Which reminds me: In scanning reviews of this record, I’ve seen a full three songs compared to Led Zeppelin, and two to Mariah Carey. In truth, the band sounds like neither, yet, somehow, both comparisons seem strangely apt, for this is a record cut from the cloth of pop classicism and rock populism, filtered through a vision that turns the familiar upside down while leaving it both utterly recognizable and totally novel– and that’s enough to make the album a minor triumph, and a major blast.

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  1. SSv’s Top Albums of 2009 « The Hurst Review - December 3, 2009

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