, June 8th, 2009 07:06
The important things about Bitte Orca?
- It's like Rise Above but more so, so therefore not.
- It's available on cassette.
Dirty Projectors' last album, 2007's Rise Above, was something so weird and exuberant that it's hard to compare it to anything else. It was a conceptual exercise — playing Black Flag's Damaged from memory. The songs had the feel of a late night with friends where one person calls out one lost detail of a hazily-recalled film or book, someone else jumps in with another detail, and soon everyone is freaking out as they piece together something forgotten that wasn't really.
Bitte Orca isn't like that. The OMG! moments of recognition are gone; it's not the staccato-pop sounds of Frankensteining away at some stuff scavenged from the neural catacombs, followed by idiot savant glee at pulling off the reanimation. If anything, Bitte Orca continues with the impulse that led frontman David Longstreth to write 2005's The Getty Address, an album about the imagined adventures of Don Henley. But now, post-Rise Above, the tunes are better.
First off, these songs don't have the same kind of discrete mnemonic scaffolding to build on. If you're not, then pretend you're American. Bitte Orca is the abstracted sound of summer drives in your parents' car, some twenty-odd years ago, with a shoebox full of cassettes under the drivers' seat for company. Maybe there's a college radio station you can pick up out there sometimes when the weather's right. But otherwise, there are the tapes: Paul Simon's Graceland. Yes, Don Henley's in there. Dire Straits. Invisible Touch. Tango in the Night. A rebellious copy of Purple Rain. And a little later, for those whose dads still thought she was in their league, Mariah. Anyway, you play them, or your dad plays them, and you listen. I'd wager that most Americans of a certain age — Longstreth and co included — sloshed around in this primordial stew of pop for endless hours, en route to soccer practice or swim team or whatever. It's just there, too normalised to prompt hi-fives of recognition.
All of this is relevant. Why else would Dirty Projectors release Bitte Orca as a cassette, as well as on CD, vinyl and download? It's not a rebellious lo-fi gesture: Domino have given away download copies to everyone who bought any of the hard-copy versions. Tapes are a slow, personal medium; they demand your time as they're rewound, they need to be played in order. You probably don't have that many of them. If you've ever made a mix tape for anyone, you know how time-intensive it is to play everything in real time plus extra for faffing around looking for the next track or drawing on the case while you record.
It's funny now to think that, once upon a time, home taping was such a threat to the record industry that tapes and records all had little pictures of a skull and crossbones on them on which and the skull was a cassette, because home taping was killing music. Hee! It's quite sweet when you consider all the burning and streaming and leaking going on these days — including the internet leak of this particular record, with its symbolic release on cassette.
Anyway. The opener 'Cannibal Resource' sounds like Dirty Projectors came across their version of this cassette culture/collective memory vision and then threw a huge party at a neighbourhood swimming pool to celebrate it. Longstreth starts off asking us to "Look around at everyone . . . everyone looks alive and waiting" before going on about the sun and the stuff of culture we all have in common: "Can it ask a question / can it sing a melody? . . . Can it be interpreted / or is it more than we can see / maybe not!" Drums splash like leapers from diving boards; guitar chords shimmer like mirages on tarmac. Vocalists Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman don't just sing here; they play Marco Polo, they echolocate.
'Temecula Sunrise' opens with some classical guitar plucking that sounds like the incidental music on an episode of Thirtysomething, before drum and vocal explosions kick in — but the lyrics are about living in a new-build house and construction and suburban spaces. Longstreth sings, "you could come live with us/I know there's a space for you in the basement," inviting us all to join him in a way of living we all know, at least from TV. It reminds me of how David Byrne would sing about the suburban houses he would see while flying over in an airplane and the people who lived in them. Longstreth and Byrne are compared a lot. They've collaborated, and it's not just that they sound similar; their concerns are similar. The banal is made exciting through strange noises, layered vocals, funk where you least expect it. Take, for example, 'Fluorescent Half Dome' — it's full of flat mechanized drums and those reversed, sucked-back synth organ tones (Korg? Roland?) that hark back to No Jacket Required as well as Prince. Longstreth sings in a doo-wop croon from a David Lynch film.
Also, this is no longer just Longstreth's project. The cover art shows Angel and Amber in a reprise of the cover of 2004's Slaves' Graves and Ballads. Bitte Orca stirs up collective dreams, so the ladies get their turns at interpretation. Maybe it's a canny move because Longstreth's voice is Marmite-like in its appeal. I love its contortions, but a lot of people don't.
Much has been said about Amber-led single 'Stillness is the Move' and how it is the second coming of Mariah Carey. It isn't, but it's no Tom Tom Club either. Live, it's almost like she's been uncaged when she sings this; you wonder where such force is coming from. Angel's song, 'Two Doves', doesn't go far enough, which is a shame because her solo record, Mind Raft, is strange and synthy and quite amazing. 'Two Doves' is pretty, but it could have been written by one of the hordes of strumming singer-songwriters out there, frets squeaking with earnestness. It reminds me of the guitar-playing girl Lili Taylor played in the film Say Anything, who handed everyone tapes of her intense songs that were all about some douche — who kept the tapes, not because they were good, but because they would be worth something some day.
But he had it backwards — tapes are worth something because, if you were young when cassette culture ruled, you keep them with you whether you want to or not. It's just how they work. And maybe that dates me, but this time Dirty Projectors have transformed music you couldn't help but listen to into music that you could get excited about listening to. On repeat, one side clicking into the next, without rewinding.