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Don't Confront Me With My Failures

By Caspar Salmon | Music | July 1, 2009 |

By Caspar Salmon | Music | July 1, 2009 |

DirtyProjectors-BitteOrca.jpgDirty Projectors: Bitte Orca

There’s nothing worse than being made to feel stupid. Well, apart from being made to feel ugly, I suppose — but it’s a close-run thing. But anyway, when I listen to Dirty Projectors, I have the horrible feeling of being dumb — of not getting it. So many of my friends have been updating their Facebook status to say how tremendous Bitte Orca is; it feels nightmarishly like I’m reliving the days of Animal Collective’s Merriwether Post Pavilion, which I listened to and didn’t understand/like.

So I approached Bitte Orca with dread, knowing that nothing less than my musical credibility was at stake. And it turns out that it’s not a bad record, in my view, but I still can’t see exactly what everyone is orgasming about. It’s an album brimming with invention and formal experimentalism, with cut-and-pasted, digitally tweaked vocals rubbing up against acoustic guitar, some synth, dabs of electric guitar and a bit of dirty bass here and there. The lyrics are obtuse, and the songs have a sort of jittery, nervous energy to them. ‘Cannibal Resource’, which kicks off the album and is the first of many ricockulous song titles, is a case in point: it starts with distorted, tinny guitars - then a splinter of deep, dirty bass kicks in; then a disjointed, bouncing sort of rhythm. It’s a very textured song, with woohs and aaahs from two backing female vocalists, and David Byrne-ish lead vocals, plus handclaps and some strummed acoustic. It builds up beautifully and frenetically, with all those ingredients dancing around each other and sometimes colliding. I’m pretty sure I admire it as a song, but I also find it a little fussy, perhaps. Likewise the song ‘Stillness Is The Move’: with all these different sonic snippets thrown together, I find it doesn’t quite coalesce into something brilliant - it’s all over the place, and quite tiring to listen to, particularly with the dashes of nervy, shrill guitar in the background.

Despite those quibbles, there are some really good things going on here, too: I love ‘The Bride’, with its acoustic guitar, falsetto lead vocals and good handclaps - it sounds like medieval minstrelsy crossed with garage rock, as the bass, guitar and fragmented backing vocals kick in. ‘Two Doves’ is similarly beautiful, but I think I found that one so impressive because it’s the most mainstream song on the record: essentially a ballad, it has deep rolls of acoustic guitar, and some beautifully shimmering strings, and female lead vocals reminiscent of Nico. It seems to be a blissed out love song essentially, full of rapture - and remarkably it is recognisably a Dirty Projectors song: they are a very distinctive band, at any rate.

I can see why David Byrne and Bjork (Bjyrne?) are fans: there’s the nervous, intellectual energy of Talking Heads, and the sonic invention of Medulla-era Bjork, where vocals are treated like one of many instruments, to give more texture to a song. This is the case with ‘Useful Chamber’, which begins with woozy organ and threatening bass knocking out a slow beat. There are delicate moments of acoustic guitar, and then huge crashes of electric before it reverts back to that thick, ominous disco beat. All the while, the girls in the band perform strained harmonies on oohs and aahs in the background. It’s so odd, but I suppose there’s some sort of achievement in pulling all of this together, and in eschewing a verse-verse-chorus framework. ‘No Intention’ is excellent, with crisp guitar, thundering handclaps and a refreshingly standard melody; ‘Remade Horizon’ is a subtle thing, with Spanish guitar and some gorgeous strings, which all crescendo together in the bridge.

In conclusion: this album is a good album, and Dirty Projectors are a good band. I may never understand what leads some of their fans to quite such genuflecting raptures, but I recognise the effort and the value of trying to do different things with song, and I even like some of the songs, quite a lot. I do nevertheless like their simpler songs best, and surely even their most die-hard disciples would recognise there’s nothing on here that’s as directly, immediately fantastic as ‘Knotty Pine’, their song from the Dark Was The Night compilation. The brilliance of that song, I would suggest, is that it had a hook, a melody, and storming vocals - and the sonic twiddling was present and correct, but took a back seat to the other stuff. Too often on this record, conversely, technicality is allowed to trump melody.

Caspar likes books, music and films, and would never be described as “enigmatic.” Read more about him at his blog, Straight Outta Crouch End.

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