about Dirty Projectors’ incredible breakout album Bitte Orca that
Time Magazine’s Josh Tyrangiel birthed the immortal critical phrase “making the critic’s job undoable” when summarising the record for its
end-of-year countdown of the best albums of 2009. By that point, it had long
been an article of faith (or a counsel of despair) that guitar music had
basically run out of creative steam and could no longer do or say anything
original. Indie and rock stars were now, as MGMT had said the previous year,
simply “fated to pretend” – to cannibalise and replicate the
past in increasingly bland reproductions and to a dwindling audience. But Dave
Longstreth’s sixth Dirty Projectors album, and first for British indie Domino,
was a true outlier that not only disproved that trend, but shattered it
out of step with the New York indie scene that birthed Dirty Projectors in the
first place, Bitte Orca was a hermetically sealed space for ideas, where
restrained R&B met experimental art-pop. For the first time in the
project’s existence, Longstreth’s left-field tendencies were at last welded to
a conventional approach to song structures, albeit with the result that the
songs are always on the verge of disintegrating in their struggle to contain
those ideas within them. By making his art serve a different purpose this time
around, the practical applications for Longstreth’s vision for music grew
stacked vocals, chugging guitars and shifting, tectonic drum patterns of ‘Cannibal Resource’, the album’s opener, to the jittery and unsettled ‘Fluorescent Half Dome’ that closes it, Bitte Orca is a staggering consecutive run of
brilliant oddities that it’s hard to imagine existing on virtually any other
record released that year – notable exceptions being Animal Collective’s career
peak Merriweather Post Pavilion and Grizzly Bear’s breakthrough album Veckatimest. There’s an almost constant fluidity to the
album that’s thrilling to revisit. Only the mid-album piece ‘Two Doves’,
with its pure and stable beauty reminiscent of Nico’s Chelsea Girl, offers any kind of a breather.
much of Bitte Orca defies accurate description, just like the Time
summary admitted. The flamenco flourishes at the end of each segment of ‘Temecula Sunrise’, which takes a polyrhythmical approach to the kind of riff you’d find
on Led Zeppelin III, is possibly the best way into the record. The
buoyant bob and weave of ‘Remade Horizon’, with its call-and-response chant
is one of the most cryptic yet irresistibly danceable with its funky, Animal
Collective-esque undertow. The woozy synths and drum-pads of ‘Useful Chamber’ take over four minutes to eventually detonate into rumbling chaos.
Through all of these tracks, Dave Longstreth’s gentle, tremulous croon swoops
up and down the mix, acting more as one of the instruments than as a lead vocal
designed to pull focus.
that chiming riff from the album’s signature track, ‘Stillness Is The Move’. Boasting breathy, piercing co-lead
vocals from Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian – without
whose feminine flair and presence Longstreth’s vision for this record would be
hopelessly incomplete – and a vibe that’s like prime-time Timbaland meeting New
York new-wave cool, it’s a singularly wonderful moment. The lush ‘No Intention’
has the same potent R&B vibe.
it was a low-key release on an independent label – it’s taken roughly ten years
to shift over 100,000 copies – Bitte Orca had a profound and immediate
impact, specifically on other songwriters. Alex Turner, most notably, sung its
praises, and traces of Dirty Projectors’ tricksy rhythms found their way into
Arctic Monkeys’ work in the 2010s. Longstreth’s abstract approach to
songwriting and construction has also informed the work of everyone from Justin
Vernon’s Bon Iver project to the weird pop of Let’s Eat Grandma, while Amber
Coffman’s vocal presence as a counterpoint to his showed that the abstract and
avant-garde could have a place in the mainstream.
Dirty Projectors themselves, although a brilliant collaboration EP with Björk titled Mount Wittenberg Orca was released the following year, they wouldn’t
hit quite the same heights again. Their line-up fractured, with the departure
of Angel Deradoorian and then, after 2012’s uneven Swing Lo Magellan, Longstreth’s creative and former
romantic partner Amber Coffman. Their break-up was examined in 2017’s
exceptional but very different Dirty Projectors, followed in short order by last
year’s happier Lamp Lit Prose.
A decade on
from its release, and alongside Veckatimest released just a couple of
weeks before it, Bitte Orca helped signal the rise to prominence once
again of a more intelligent and complex approach within indie-rock – one that
was not afraid to embrace experimentalism, confident that an audience would be
out there for it without having to compromise on ambition and scope for the
sake of radio play and other promotion models that were becoming increasingly
outdated. Of course, that’s something that’s always existed in the independent
scene, but its resurgence explains the continued survival in 2019 of labels
that are prepared to back their artists creatively. At the end of the
Noughties, that vitality and attitude was diminishing, and it’s partly thanks
to records like Bitte Orca that it returned.
Listen to Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Influenced: Arctic Monkeys, Foals, Vampire Weekend, John Grant, Bon Iver, The Antlers, Yeasayer, Tune-Yards, Grizzly Bear, Local Natives, Frog Eyes, St. Vincent, Waxahatchee, Speedy Ortiz, Julia Holter, Mitski, Torres, Kiran Leonard, Let’s Eat Grandma, Big Thief, Japanese Breakfast
Influenced by: The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Yo La Tengo, Pavement, Silver Jews, Radiohead, Wilco, TV On The Radio, Animal Collective, Battles, Björk, Sufjan Stevens
Tags: 10 years old, 10th anniversary, Amber Coffman, Bitte Orca, Brian McOmber, cult '00s, David Longstreth, Dirty Projectors, Domino, Ed Biggs, Haley Dekle, Nat Baldwin
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