By Calum Marsh | 10 June 2009
2005’s The Getty Address was an interesting if somewhat self-indulgent experiment, one which painted Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth as stubbornly devoted to personal idiosyncrasies, regardless of the sacrifices—namely accessibility and, for some, basic listenability—such pseudo-arty meandering and noodling required. Regardless of your feelings for The Getty Address or the abortive Damaged (1981)-remake Rise Above (2007), Longstreth’s dedication to his ideas, however misguided, isn’t up for debate. For good or ill, the Dirty Projectors really don’t sound like anybody else.
Now they don’t even sound like themselves, really—Bitte Orca feels from the fore like the product of a drastically different group. This is, more often than not, a fairly straightforward indie rock record. Given Longstreth’s reputation for art-school flamboyance and aesthetic peculiarity, you’d be forgiven for taking Bitte Orca‘s comparatively muted indie rock as a kind of artistic compromise. This is the career-defining “breakthrough” record I assumed the Dirty Projectors would never even attempt to produce, his approach too scattered and indulgent to make for such precise pop, and yet Longstreth has managed to reconcile his extravagance with the basic forms and conventions of mainstream rock and pop. The result, in a surprising turn, is often very entertaining.
Whether Longstreth restraint is a sign of concession to popular demand is anybody’s guess, but it hardly matters given the quality of the resulting material. Earlier Dirty Projectors suffered the fate of any music defined by its own distinctive weirdness, oft-parodied for being pretentious and silly. On Bitte Orca, Longstreth still wails like an awry Avey Tare, but this time around his moans are strictly peripheral, and thus less obnoxious. Most other excesses which marked (and marred) Rise Above and The Getty Address have been either reduced or made entirely absent, providing a sense of clarity the bulk of Longstreth’s earlier material sorely lacked. It’s been suggested that the Dirty Projectors produce music which is by and large “impenetrable,” so it seems in fair response that Bitte Orca overwhelmingly reigns in and tones down. This isn’t to say that Longstreth’s experimental tendencies have been totally muzzled—there’s little material on Bitte Orca which borders on outright mainstream pop, and Longstreth’s voice itself is as vexatious as ever—but this album tends to engage and satisfy rather than confront or challenge.
“Cannibal Resource” gets things started in a fairly unsurprising manner, its sinewy guitar stabs and canned beat backing Longstreth’s usual undulations with ample fervor, and while the track isn’t exactly revelatory, it’s refreshingly terse. “Cannibal Resource” works well as an opener because it sets the tone for what’s to come: an uncharacteristically focused and lean rock album with a remarkable lack of bullshit. “Temecula Sunrise” treads similar ground, actually approaching a straight-forward verse-chorus structure marked by what appears to be Longstreth’s meandering approximation of a pop hook. “The Bride” features some of the Dirty Projectors’ more bombastic asides, a few grand rock gestures penetrating dual female vocalists Amber Coffman and Susanna Weiche’s ethereal backing harmonies, but the track’s function seems to be to simple lull one into preparation for the album’s astounding pop centerpiece: the Coffman/Weiche-fronted love ballad “Stillness is the Move.”
Released as Bitte Orca‘s lead single early last month, it’s pretty clear that both the band and their label understand just how potent “Stillness” is, and maybe just how commercially successful the song has the potential to be. The track sees the Dirty Projectors rejecting all enduring experimental conventions in favor of sheer pop, and its unrivaled quality has the dual effect of bettering the record’s midsection while deflating its beginning and end. I’d say this is Longstreth realizing his mainstream fantasies if there’d ever been indication that he had any; the only explanation seems to be that his ultimate musical experiment was to completely invert his approach, to attempt total pop subsumption. The underlying sentiment is as unabashedly insipid as it is endearing: “After all we’ve been through,” Coffman lilts, “I know that I will always love you.”
They smartly follow the exhausting high of “Stillness” with “Two Doves,” Bitte Orca‘s most conspicuously subdued number. It serves as a momentary reprieve before the staggering “Useful Chamber” marches on, making use of flashy gimmicks where the bulk of this record remains austere. Its mid-song refrain—a bursting cry of “Bitte Orca / Orca Bitte!”—is the fleeting culmination of a career of lofty pretension, Longstreth’s bizarre nonsense rant yelped like a messianic street-corner vagrant speaking languages we’ll never understand.
From there it’s really just a pleasant comedown: “No Intention” follows “Useful Chamber” with respectable aplomb, “Remade Horizon”‘s bouncy yelps are joyful, and “Fluorescent Half Dome” sputters and dwindles like a reasonable closer should. These songs are disappointments, but excusably so—as satisfying as one can possibly expect following the near pop perfection of “Stillness is the Move.” As relatively good as most of Bitte Orca is, that track alone gives us reason enough to be optimistic: should Longstreth pursue his newfound fascination with mainstream music further, it’s proof that the Dirty Projectors are capable of evolving into a far better pop band than their experimental selves ever let on.