June 28, 2009: Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca

At 2009’s halfway point it appears that the ever-premature debate over Album Of The Year, at least as far as the Pitchforkosphere is concerned, is mostly about three NYC-based art-rock bands. The buzz surrounding Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest seems to have worn off, and apart from “Two Weeks” (a nice single, if one indebted to fellow NYCers French Kicks and The Walkmen), the album strikes me as a rather timid followup to Yellow House. As for Animal Collective, I’ve never been much of a fan, but I enjoyed Merriweather Post Pavilion in part because it’s a great pleasure to see an obviously talented and ambitious band rein in their indulgences and focus on writing the killer pop album that was always seemingly within their reach.

Dirty Projectors are likewise talented and ambitious, but their back catalog is so full of heavy conceptual exercises and wilfully obtuse artiness that I just assumed they would never even be interested in making anything catchy and accessible. Not only am I crow-eatingly shocked by Bitte Orca‘s manic pop thrills, I’m absolutely gobsmacked at the ease at which bandleader Dave Longstreth balanced his established idiosyncracies with a mastery of pop-song expectations. And part of that mastery is what I feel is Bitte Orca‘s best and most capital-I Important trait: it’s one of the year’s strongest arguments for the preservation of the full-length album format.

And to think, it’s not even a concept album— at least not in the press-friendly way that previous Dirty Projectors albums were, where writers could pad their pieces gosh-golly-wowing at Rise Above‘s idea of covering an entire Black Flag album from memory, or whatever The Getty Address was “about”. I’ve always found the mere existence of “concept” on an album to be an inevitable distraction from the issue of whether or not the album is actually any good. Unlike said predecessors, Bitte Orca thankfully has no such baggage coming out of the gate, which gives overanalyzing bores like me license to impose our own imaginary frameworks on it. So yes I’m totally allowing for the possibility that I’m full of crap here, but I’m convinced that the Bitte Orca‘s track ordering is what elevates it from a really good album to a damn near brilliant one. The sequencing forms an honest-to-god suite full of thematic and emotional arcs both micro and macro in scope; I can’t imagine hearing this group of songs played in a different order and having quite the same effect.

The album kicks off with three tracks that provide an opening statement of purpose, establishing the Dirty Projectors’ sound as a shiny refinement of Rise Above‘s Afro-pop leanings: nimble sparkling guitars, sparse staggered percussion, David Longstreth’s weird croon/wail (mostly kept within the bounds of tastefulness), and Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian’s backing vocals that trade off between complex harmonizing and call-and-response syncopation. After that, Longstreth steps away from the mic and lets Coffman and Deradoorian handle the lead vocal duties on “Stillness is the Move” and “Two Doves”. It’s also during these two tracks that a string quartet makes its first appearance, and I love the way that it only appears during the very end of “Stillness” to provide a lead-in to “Doves”. I also love that these two tracks, while linked by these similarities in arrangement, are stylistically very different: “Stillness” is a summertime R&B single, whereas “Doves” is a soothing Sufjan-esque folk ditty.

Longstreth returns to the mic and the strings depart for the album’s climax, the six-and-a-half-minute “Useful Chamber”, which piles on electro-glitchiness and production tricks only hinted at previously: keening pitch-bended synths, autotuned-to-death (or possibly just cut-up) backing vocals, and a fuzzed-out maelstrom of a chorus complete with a ridiculous guitar-hero solo capper. After that, there’s not really anywhere for Bitte Orca to go but down, but the remaining tracks provide a pleasant coast to the finish line. It’s tough for “No Intention” to do anything but be a bit of a comedown from “Useful Chamber” and a reversion to the status quo, coming off as a weaker version of parts of previous songs, although it does have its laid-back charms. The strings of “Stillness” and “Two Doves” return for the final two tracks: “Remade Horizon”, on which the pingponging call-and-responses reach their logical extreme— not only do the guitars get in on the action, sounding jumpier than ever, but Coffman’s and Deradoorian’s rapid-fire parts interlocking into a single melody at the three-minute mark is nothing short of magical— and the watery slow-jam “Flourescent Half Dome”, little more than a soothing extended outro, but a well-earned one.

Bitte Orca clocks in at a modest 41 minutes, close to an ideal pop-album length— enough to feel substantial but also leaving the listener wanting more. I bring that up to reiterate my awe of the Dirty Projectors’ unexpected mastery of even the smallest little details of what makes good pop music: pacing, conciseness, brevity, and most of all, confidence.