Happy 10th Anniversary to Dirty Projectors’ sixth studio album Bitte Orca, originally released June 9, 2009.
There are some albums that change the trajectory of your listening patterns. Vocal arrangements, percussive structures, certain sounds and silences can be so new or so alien they make your brain turn its head and question: what was that?
My brain turned for Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors’ sixth studio album. It was released ten years ago this week on June 9, 2009, the week I turned 21 as my junior year of college was wrapping up. I had spent the semester in Los Angeles and returned to my home base on campus, the radio station, in Central New York State and was clueless to the new music on air. There was one with red and blue blotches that sounded so off. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But as the Music Director, I knew I had to give it the literal college try.
This record started a personal tradition I still practice today. I listen to something long enough, over and over, until I pinpoint what it is I don’t like about it. With sound and taste I always want to know why, and often find myself asking someone why a song or movie or anything didn’t do it for them. Bitte Orca was the first record I wanted to understand because I couldn’t. It was so unlike anything I had ever heard before, radio DJ or fan, that I needed to expose every side of it to myself. Soon enough I fell in love.
Bitte Orca can be jarring and unsettling. Pop or indie music didn’t sound like this ten years ago and most of it still doesn’t. That is what sets Dirty Projectors, and their fearless leader David Longstreth, apart. Electric underwater riffs open the record on “Cannibal Resource.” The guitar on this LP is strong but it won’t be what you expect. Longstreth opens with his high pitched croon followed quickly by an acapella, out of sync chorus. Two vocalists chase after each other’s pauses. The chorals are angelic yet twisted. Separately everything sounds out of tune, but as one, it’s in perfect form.
It’s Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian we’re hearing. Both were instrumentalists and vocalists for the band. Coffman was a touring guitarist until she joined full time around the time Deradoorian did too, for Dirty Projectors’ 2007 LP Rise Above and the accompanying tour. Their chorals wind around each other. So much of the record is their driving force, and it’s their faces on the cover under the red and blue spots.
“Stillness Is The Move” is the best portrait of Coffman’s pop vocal talent and Deradoorian is right there to complement every note. Under them is a pierced trickle of guitar. When they slow down for the bridge, the guitar stops to give way for more percussion. Here the lyrics reflect the musical concept: “Why am I here and not over there? / Where did time begin / Where does space end / Where do you, where do you and I begin?”
“Two Doves” centers on a string quartet while Coffman’s voice remains pristine. When I saw the band on the Swing Lo Magellan tour, she took the mic off the stand and walked all over the stage singing to the crowd like a pop queen, which she is. Her voice rolls as deep as it can reach high. Behind the call and response she has with the strings, is stunning acoustic fingerpicking. On Bitte Orca there are always more layers.
“Useful Chamber” opens the back half of the album. It’s the longest song and leads us down a more experimental path. Coffman’s and Deradoorian’s vocals swirl around Longstreth. The shred of guitar popping in and out is a sweet surprise but its Longstreth screaming the title “Bitte Orca/Orca Bitte!” that’s the peak of the album. Longstreth’s release of the words BITTE ORCA sound as if he’s finally getting it off his chest. You’ll eventually yell it along with him. The track takes its time with tension through crescendos and a nagging metronome. It’s as unsettling as it is satisfying.
The songs that follow ask what more can be done to bend sound? “No Intention” is more melodic to warm us up for “Remade Horizon,” which finds Coffman and Deradoorian singing looped staccato notes building a beat, not unlike Merrill Garbus’ performances and methods as tUnE-yArDs (her first LP BiRd-BrAiNs also came out in 2009). They pull us backward and forward at first with a gibberish until you find its trance, almost a yodel: “Yeah / ee / I wanna / Remake the horizon.”
Album closer “Fluorescent Half Dome” is built on synths, electronic drums, and is the one thing not like the other on Bitte Orca. The only remaining throughline is the strings. They complement all the instruments, even as they shift into different phrases. It’s a cap, or a dome, on the LP.
Every song seems like a progression of bridges, not one is like another and just as you think you know what’s going on, you don’t. Something is happening on every count of four, or eight, on every song on the LP. This is made possible by the six credited band members and four additional musicians listed in the personnel. There are a lot of players at work and they all weave a lattice pattern around each for nonstop variation. Bitte Orca’s constant is change.
Through it all, Longstreth remains their fearless leader. He’s an exploratory, avant-garde vocalist, musician, and songwriter. While it’s hard to pinpoint what he sounds like, it’s impossible to confuse him with anyone else. He hangs onto syllables and words longer than you want. Bitte Orca is a record you have to let happen to you. Ignoring it won’t do you any good. It’s too beautiful and strange to dismiss. I’m glad I gave it a chance ten years ago or we wouldn’t be here. It remains a record in my memory, one I played for weeks on end. It changed me as a consumer of sound and for that I am grateful.
Dirty Projectors’ first LP was released in 2003 on Western Vinyl but the band has been on Domino since Bitte Orca. For Longstreth, who still records and releases under the moniker Dirty Projectors no matter what, the band is his innovative brain child. Coffman departed after 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan and Deradoorian after the EP the band did with Bjork in 2010. Swing Lo Magellan is an even more accessible pop folk record and less dissonant. And the two LPs he’s made since are polar opposites of each other each reflecting his state of mind.
Bitte Orca is a creative peak for him and the band. While he is the only credited songwriter, except on “Stillness Is The Move” which Coffman co-wrote with him, you could say Longstreth conducted the band. But really I think they conducted each other. This record is a unique, prime example of musicians working together to make a new shape. It stands so well on its own and out from a crowd. It’s a calculated scatter you must let happen to you. I speak with experience: giving something you at first find uncertain is always worth the new discovery and the new joy it can bring.