Wednesday, December 2, 2009

#30. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino, 2009)

The last few times I've given Bitte Orca a listen the following question kept popping into my head: Are Dirty Projectors the 00s version of Talking Heads? More specifically, is Bitte Orca the 00s equivalent of the Fear of Music/Remain In Light duo? The markers are all there - interpolation of African rhythms into warped pop songs, vocals that will either entrance you or make you want to run screaming from the room (though David Byrne's got nothing of DPs frontman Dave Longstreth in that category as evidenced on their collaboration from the Dark Was the Night compilation) and a keen sense of hookiness underneath the layers of weird - but is that enough to make the comparison apt? The fact is that for all the similarities between the two, and if you don't hear at least some sort of connection there I'm inclined to think that you're kidding yourself a little bit, Bitte Orca is just too fucking weird at its core to stand in comparison to any album outside of the Dirty Projectors' catalog. The signposts are there, but the way they're referenced leaves them clouded by all manner of knotty, twisted guitar work and out of left field vocal bleats. But then again, the weirdness inherent to this being a Dirty Projectors album is somewhat masked by Longstreth's evolution into something of an art-pop savant, with a heavy emphasis on the pop half of the equation. The two sides are at war with each other for the full 41 minutes and it makes for the most satisfying art-pop album of the decade - or at least something to challenge for that title.

The best thing about Bitte Orca is that no matter which side of the battle wins out the results are equally good. When the pop side wins out you get "Stillness Is the Move," which puts 99% of modern R 'n' B to shame in terms of both structure and pureness of emotion, and the relatively straightforward acoustic numbers. When the weird side wins out you get "Useful Chamber," the true stunner of the album after careful consideration, and "Cannibal Resource." When the two sides are in a dead heat you get "Temecula Sunrise" which would be utterly beautiful if not for the shards of fragmented guitar that rain over the track at its most potent moments. The push/pull between the two sides of Longstreth's songwriting/composition style is half the fun of Bitte Orca to be honest, the first few listens were delightful because I literally had no clue what the next song would pull out and after that novelty had warn off it became more obvious that these were some top notch songs underneath the unpredictability and the weirdness. Even if the last couple of tracks don't quite keep the momentum up, and really I don't envy anything that had to follow "Useful Chamber" and to a lesser extent "No Intention," they still bear the mark of one of the most interesting voices, both in a literal and figurative sense, in modern art pop.

And speaking of voices (segue fucking king here people) I can't help but think that the increased presence of the duo of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian is at least part of why I'm responding so much more enthusiastically to this than to other DP albums - and I like their past stuff quite a bit. Sure, Longstreth's still front and center on many of the tracks, but even there he seems to be sharing more of the mic time with his two female cohorts, and given that both of them sing absolutely beautifully in contrast to Longstreth's more...shall we say 'divisive' vocals, it's not surprising that I find myself reaching for this over something like The Getty Address. I generally prefer female vocals over male ones at any rate, but the fact that both Coffman and Deradoorian (I never get tired of typing that name...) are such pure and natural talents in that department adds a lot of enjoyment to the proceedings. When the vocals are wholly turned over to them, as on "Stillness Is the Move," the album puts forth its most potently enjoyable bursts, and while thy tend to be the less substantial of the great tracks they're the ones I'll come back to more often. That's not to say that the Longstreth-led numbers are less enjoyable, I can't say that any of the songs here fall under that description really, but the higher level of Deradoorian/Coffman contributions makes for a much more palatable album of the whole.

What it really comes down to is that Bitte Orca might be the most enjoyable album released this year while also being the most potentially off-putting. Far all the purely enjoyable moments there's something around the corner that might make the bulk of listeners turn away in disgust. And that's how I like my pop albums (and once again, if you can't see this as a pop album first and foremost for all its art-damage you're kidding yourself): catchy at its base but not devoid of other interesting touches that keep it from feeling like the musical equivalent of empty calories.

Stillness Is the Move

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