No release this year better represents a realization of potential than the new album from off-kilter indie collective Dirty Projectors. That Animal Collective record we all know and love could be seen as a similar document in this regard, but whereas the triumph of Merriweather Post Pavilion is that of a band in peak form, exercising their long-established skill, the level of success Dirty Projectors attain on Bitte Orca is of a kind they've never before reached.
As chronicled in a series of eccentric albums, the odd EP and one truly confounding reproduction of Black Flag's punk landmark Damaged from memory (2007's Rise Above), lead Projector David Longstreth has proven himself a restless prodigy, delivering inconsistently brilliant collections with just as inconsistent a line-up of musicians under the Dirty Projectors moniker. It's always been apparent that his band, no matter what the incarnation, are a formidable indie-rock collective, but the material they've churned out in the past – wildly eclectic and often maddening compositions coupled with Longstreth's otherworldly falsetto – have made for a musical output much easier to admire than love. Shards of Longstreth's more crystalline art-pop tend to find themselves sandwiched between lesser experiments.
Take, for example, the meandering crashings of "Room 13" and the half-hearted sketch of "Untitled" surrounding perhaps the band's best track, "Rise Above," on the album of the same name. Or the David Byrne-aided "Knotty Pine" nearly drowned out by the mediocrity pervading the Dark Was the Night compilation it's a part of. Not so with Bitte Orca though, a collection of nine songs, each just about as good as anything the band's ever done.
This isn't just a great album, it's some kind of lightning-in-a-bottle miracle; Longstreth has managed to channel his tendency toward going-nowhere diversions into one song: "The Bride," the only weakness in this whole set which, in reality, is about as compelling as all the other doodles Longstreth has given us (which is to say it's no disaster). Complaints about this album end there, as no other major missteps occur in the 41 minute length between the electric guitar chime of opener "Cannibal Resource" and the fading synths which close percussive stunner "Fluorescent Half-Dome." That's not to say Longstreth and company have abandoned their more artistic impulses for catchy, streamlined pop; it's just that the more jarring moments on Bitte Orca always feel cohesive and never threaten the progression of the songs.
Consider the R&B-influenced "Stillness is the Move," which wouldn't be half as compelling and daring without the clipped guitar chords that give it an Afro-pop flavor (surely one of Longstreth's favorite musical stylings). It's one of two songs which make up the middle section of Bitte Orca, both sung by Dirty Projectors' dual female members.
Sighing siren #1, Angel Deradoorian, takes the mic for 'Stillness,' tapping into the same poppy vocal runs that make the best of Mariah Carey and Beyonce's output so winning. The track chimes nervously and clangs loudly until the appropriately angelic bridge hits: Angel's layered vocal is given front-and-center treatment backed only by a subtle bass pulse; each of the other elements of the track reenter the mix one by one, plus a swelling string section well-complementing Angel's high-pitched tenure, and the whole thing ascends into the heavens – and to the top of the list of 2009's best singles.
Amber Coffman, her voice of an earthier and huskier quality than Angel's, croons over the other feminine track of the set, "Two Doves," her voice gliding atop quivering orchestrations and Longstreth's intricately composed acoustic picking. "Kiss me with your mouth open," Amber insists, and at first the song seems like a love ballad, until Amber starts dropping words like "killer," and the real shocker: "Our bed is like a failure." The song ends with Amber pleading "call on me," her voice cracked and broken and her plea left unanswered. It's the album's most devastating emotional blow, and not without competition.
Longstreth-led pieces are just as impressive, if not more so. Like his talents as a composer, his skills as a guitar virtuoso need not be proven further, but Longstreth doesn't seem to be listening; he cooks up more than a few devilishly catchy and technically mind-boggling rhythms here, on "Temecula Sunrise" and on the album's most dazzling stand-alone piece, "Useful Chamber." Six and a half minutes of tempo shifts, surprise bridges, a fashionably late chorus and Yes levels of math-rock cacophony make up "Useful Chamber," which has to be seen as the most successful meshing of Longstreth's restless desire to experiment and, um, listenability. The revelatory moments come fast and furious, but how about the sudden assault of layered electric guitars or the yelping of the album's title – didn't see either coming.
It's almost unfair to point out this stuff, since a great deal of this album's allure is in discovering the unexpected directions it takes. This quality firmly aligns Bitte Orca with another of this decade's defining art-rock statements, 2004's mammoth Fiery Furnaces album Blueberry Boat. Both pride themselves on unpredictability, and making the listener an active participant with the music rather than a passive one.
In this sense, the comparatively predictable progression of the album's last three tracks ("No Intention," "Remade Horizon" and "Fluorescent Half-Dome") could be seen as a flaw. But "No Intention," a decidedly more relaxed Longstreth tune, also ranks as one of the artist's more soulful vocal performances, his "Two Doves" moment of emotional rawness. And check that whacky bridge; dueling guitars fight for supremacy, complemented by Amber and Angel's alternating "woos" and "oos." It's followed by "Remade Horizon," probably the album's most cryptic moment lyrically, but no less inventive and engaging musically, further elevated by the playful vocal interplay between all three principles. And finally, "Fluorescent Half-Dome," the most spare track here and an appropriately subdued closer which relies heavily on propulsive, meticulous percussion, a recurring theme of this album exemplified more here than at any other time on Bitte Orca.
In performance, the giraffe-necked Longstreth is a twitchy mess of tics, refusing to sit still; in interviews, he's even worse. In the studio, we can only imagine. It remains to be seen if Longstreth has actually gotten his shit together or if this is indeed a fleeting moment of brilliance to be followed by the same uneven work we've come to expect from the artist. But really, it doesn't matter; we'll always have Bitte Orca, Dave, and for that I'm sure we can tolerate whatever bonkers thing you choose to do next – The Beatles' White Album played backwards, perhaps?