Monday, June 15, 2009

Hitting The Spot Like Gatorade

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino, 2009)

‘Bitte Orca’ would appear to be Dirty Projectors’ breakthrough album – the one that somehow makes sense to critics alienated by the conceptual quirks of ‘Rise Above’ or ‘The Getty Address’. Those who, like me, fell in love with ‘Rise Above’ and its audacious reimagining of hardcore punk as meticulous and virtuosic composition might initially find it hard to locate precisely what is so singular about ‘Bitte Orca’. On first listen, it seems like a beefier, heavier take on the group’s bizarre mix of math-rock and African soukous and hi-life rhythms. It’s every bit as planned and cerebral as ‘Rise Above’, but with some concessions to commercial production techniques that threaten to make it less visceral and exciting.

Thankfully, repeated listens reveal ‘Bitte Orca’ to be yet another example of David Longstreth’s peculiar genius. It seems like more of a collective enterprise this time – with Longstreth’s female collaborators Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian allowed a more individual and imposing presence. This time, Longstreth has added a sincere affection for poptastic R&B and chamber folk music into his already overflowing melting pot. How it all coheres is a total mystery. Somehow, ‘Bitte Orca’ doesn’t simply sound like a grab-bag of musical influences but rather a carefully arranged and highly original synthesis. References to Talking Heads are understandable (especially given Longstreth’s tendency for vocal yelps and acrobatics), but that band rarely sounded as aggressive as Dirty Projectors do on ‘Cannibal Resource’ or as tender as ‘Two Doves’. Essentially, there is no other rock band at work now covering this range or making music as simultaneously adventurous and entertaining.

Longstreth’s cerebral approach (it’s no surprise to discover he studied composition at Yale) can be off-putting for those who prefer rock music to be more instinctive and less studied. My response to this has been to emphasise the sheer thrill of this group’s sound – the unexpected jerks and rhythmic shifts, the sudden explosions amidst otherwise pretty surroundings, the unpredictable ebb and flow of Longstreth’s daredevil melodies. It also strikes me that the idea that collective improvisation or the basic energy of four square rock have somehow superseded the art of composing is a rather offensive and pretentious notion. Any understanding of music’s value and impact has to recognise that are a wealth of different means to achieving an emotional reaction. Many of this album’s most exciting moments occur as a result of Longstreth’s ambitious arrangements. The vocal breakdown on ‘Remade Horizon’, which the group do indeed replicate in concert, is particularly staggering.

Sometimes it appears as if the African influence on Longstreth’s writing and guitar playing has diminished here. Arguably, it’s more plausible that it has been better subsumed within the group’s overall sound. For example, ‘Remade Horizon’ veers joyously between a lush folk strum and a 12/8 afro groove. The guitar lines throughout the album proudly display these influences, even when the rhythms suggest more common western idioms.

Beneath the hard-hitting punctuation of Brian McComber’s precise drumming ( which at times hints a little too much at the famous Dave Fridmann thunderous drum sound), there is a nuance, subtlety and care to much of this music. Sometimes this is deceptive – amidst its sweet string arrangement and tender vocal, ‘Two Doves’ contains some crushing lyrics. After listing some inspiring images, Angel Deradoorian confesses ‘our bed is like a failure’. ‘The Bride’ is at least partially melancholic and reflective, whilst the closing ‘Flourescent Half Dome’ could almost be described as a ballad. ‘Temecula Sunrise’ is a peculiar mix of delicate, intricate plucking and noisy outbursts of joy.

‘Stillness Is The Move’ has been the main talking point here, for obvious reasons, as it seems like a move into soulful slow jam territory. Amber Coffman’s vocal might be flighty at times, but it also makes for the most accessible piece of music Longstreth has yet produced, albeit one which is impressively artful in its construction. Much of its success comes from the juxtaposition of the vocal melody with Longstreth’s looped, confounding guitar figure. Even better though is the extraordinary ‘Useful Chamber’, which begins in a delicately vocodered electronic haze before travelling off in several different directions, its most aggressive section giving the album its title.

There can be little doubt now that Longstreth is a massive talent. Whilst he’s kept the same formation that toured Rise Above, he’s cleverly avoided simply remaking that record with original lyrics. Whilst he is undoubtedly both playful and confounding, it’s also clear from ‘Bitte Orca’ that his passion for a broad range of music is entirely sincere. The interplay between the various voices is a delight, whilst the rigorous control of the entire ensemble is unmatched elsewhere in alternative rock. This is as complete a record as we could have wished for, this time without any endearingly conceptual peg. The astounding music speaks entirely for itself.

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