Dirty Projectors Bitte Orca

[Domino; 2009]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: experimental pop
Others: David Byrne, Björk, Deradoorian, Adam Forkner, Nat Baldwin

Not long after Radiohead circumvented every traditional marketing strategy with the release of In Rainbows back in 2007, Thom Yorke confessed to Rolling Stone the enticement of such an alternative method of product promotion. A certainly understandable sentiment: the album’s expedited availability roiled our budgets and best-of lists, and everybody is still talking about its pioneering means of obtainability. But what left us target consumers a tad nonplussed was not Yorke’s surprisingly straightforward evaluation of the entire process, but his allusion to a vague possibility that the band would engage the entire process again for the distribution of future material, with specific regard to singles.

Now, if Dead Air Space was soon cluttering the airwaves with free three-and-a-half minute tidbits of Radiohead goodness a la Deerhunter's Blogspot, you can be sure that my little downloading finger would be amongst the most trigger-happy, the URL getting more love from my Firefox cache memory than my own band’s otherwise pathetically unfrequented MySpace profile. But consider the evolution, both in extent and nature, that Radiohead would undergo: the group that just finished a 13-year run of delivering an impenetrable string of masterpieces is suddenly writing and recording on a most sporadic basis. Not that the band hasn’t earned the right to do whatever the heck they darn please, but, like sticking a Wii amongst the antsy residents of a nursing home, it’d be difficult for a die-hard fan not to presume the eventual worst on the parts of Radiohead and/or Radiohead’s listeners: somebody gets a little overzealous, somebody gets offended, somebody gets hurt.

To my knowledge, however, Radiohead hasn’t further capitalized on the pliability that a tool such as the internet lends to mass circulation, and earlier this year, news was revealed that an eighth studio album is currently in the oven. So maybe Yorke’s casual speculation suffered an unfair dose of overanalysis. But the whole In Rainbows affair – trendsetting as it was for some artists, recall – should serve as fodder for consideration as to how our listening habits have changed. In short, the artists we love have recognized our primary source of consumption and have so responded to accommodate this drift. And now more than ever, our sudden degree of autonomy is reformatting the entire marketplace.

So with just about everything so easily procurable now, enlisting the services of an anthropologist to point out that Generation Y, if not everybody else, suffers from somewhat of a lack of dedication isn’t really necessary. Like the Apostle Paul, I’ll be the first to admit my own degeneracy: with my “Top 25 Most Played” iTunes playlist comprised of songs from 17 different artists, I’m the so-called “chief of sinners.” After all, we do operate in an age where some joker can become famous simply by remixing on his MacBook another person’s original work of art.(Yeah, I’m looking at you, Girl Talk. And I kind of like you, Girl Talk…)

So when I first caught Dirty Projectors’ new song “Stillness is the Move” rounding its merry way across the internet a month or so ago, my initial response was forgivably dithery. On the one hand, that a project so immutably focused and melodically complex in years past had resorted to the sugary gratification of a popster’s hip-hop was, to say the least, disconcerting. Yes, it’s that much of a departure from anything that mastermind Dave Longstreth and sirens Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian have thus far recorded, and imagining how such a song would fit with other material was difficult. But, conversely, if the information superhighway is forcing artists to rethink the comprehensiveness and cohesion of their work, at least you and I have scored one top-notch little dandy.

Whereas most of Longstreth’s compositions beckon a slivering deconstruction, requiring rapt listening for his mind-bendingly pizzicato precision, with “Stillness is the Move” one is more inclined to simply groove to Coffman’s sultry, sophisticated lilts over the insistent, stammered-out drumbeat. Possessing dangerous levels of unadulterated catchiness, this single, along with Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” and Quiet Loudly’s “Over the Balcony,” will remain on my iPod well into the next decade. But beyond the band’s unanticipated endearing accessibility, the subject matter here is strikingly touching. Because when Coffman sings lines that would in any other respect induce a hefty succession of cringes -- “After all that we’ve been through/ I know that I will always love you/ From now until forever, baby/ I can’t imagine anything better” and “After all that we’ve been through/ I know we’ll make it” and “There is nothing we can’t do/ I’ll see you along the way” -- a sea change as stark as “Stillness is the Move” clarifies this optimistic attitude towards general life changes.

And, more so, the song serves as a banner for the direction of the balance of the record, because, while none of the remaining eight tracks verge on the magnetic charm of “Stillness is the Move,” each reveals a growth of unforeseen linear measure, what with the rigidity of compositional precepts marshalling Dirty Projectors’ past history. Even for a band that last graced us with reinterpretations of songs from Black Flag’s seminal 1981 album Damaged, Bitte Orca is an incomparably ambitious collection.

Immediately following “Stillness is the Move” in the track listing – and runner-up to that song’s exoteric makeup – is the austerely unvarnished “Two Doves.” A pastoral ditty elevated by wobbly strings, a soft, chiffony acoustic guitar picks its way underneath Deradoorian’s feathery vocals. Purists need not necessarily fret, though. Given Longstreth’s peerless understanding of orchestration, his past efforts have always reflected a work-in-progress experimental dalliance. And Bitte Orca contains more than a few last vestiges of this exquisiteness. For instance, “Useful Chamber” makes use of this typically uneven keel, but portions of the song are subverted by an unprecedented electronic bassline, bumping and grinding as Longstreth characteristically varies his pitch in ways that most of us can only feebly intone in mimicry. Traces of his knotty melodies and bridled discombobulation abound (listen to “The Bride”), but the gist of Longstreth’s arrangements this time around seem focused on meeting pop music at least halfway. And with Bitte Orca, the aforementioned ambition coalesces an infusion of euphonious simplicity into these nine new songs. That is, less is actually much, much more.

For all of you obsessive-compulsive types who downloaded the rest of Kala just because you couldn’t stand the fact that that “Paper Planes” MP3 encoded with the information “track 11 of 12” was floating around on your hard drive, fear not. All in all, the LP hasn’t become an outmoded format –- at least as far as Dave Longstreth is concerned -- and our agonizing upon hearing “Stillness is the Move” for the first time was a bit unfounded. While still retaining that exacting focus that has made Dirty Projectors the unplaceable enterprise that it is, Bitte Orca is merely the sound of an extremely talented group of musicians tweaking and, to an extent, reinventing their approach, stepping a little further away from left field.

1. Cannibal Resource
2. Temecula Sunrise
3. The Bride
4. Stillness Is the Move
5. Two Doves
6. Useful Chamber
7. No Intention
8. Remade Horizon
9. Fluorescent Half Dome

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