I don’t know what ‘bitte orca’ means, and I must say that I’m also having a similar problem in trying to work out what the hell the new Dirty Projectors’ album of the same name is really about. Just where on earth does this insane, art-pop-neo-folk-chamber-rock-minimalist-afro-r’n’b odyssey fit into the wider scheme of things? There’s Kasabian, and then there’s Dirty Projectors. What kind of fucked-up logic is at work in a world that presents us with such radical contrasts in artistic worth? Did the same God who made West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum make Bitte Orca?
I think not, and in actual fact it’s not really all that difficult to position this latest from Dave Longstreth and co, to realize that Bitte Orca is so obviously and emphatically what the world needs right now. Even if large swathes of the western population don’t know it yet (notably most of our fellow citizens here in the UK) we’re surely now coming to the end of the Great Nostalgic Postmodernist Joke That Got Out of Hand, that chapter of our cultural history which began in earnest in the mid-nineties with the arrival of the devout pastiche-driven retrogressiveness of Britpop, and which subsequently deepened into a bewildered and backward-looking decade-and-a-half that saw just about every stylistic movement of the late-twentieth century pillaged and travestied in superficial principle-less fashion, until every shred of futurism and vitality was squeezed out of a once noble, radical and meaningful alternative/independent scene. We’re now at a juncture where many people who really should know better genuinely think the future of British music lies in the hands of a slickly-marketed, fashion supplement-courting Kylie Minogue knock-off.
So friends, I’m afraid it’s time to for us to choose sides. Will we carry on down the path of music-as-lifestyle, of shallow ironic referencing of past cultural (non-)glories, of dumbing-down, of pop music as commercial sell-out rather than populist art? Or will we side with the Dirty Projectors’ exhilarating, intelligent, experimentalist vision of what twenty-first century music can amount to if underwritten with a bit of idealism, bravery and (dare I say it) pretentiousness?
Listen to Bitte Orca, and the decision should be immediate and conscious-bypassing. The album opens with a series of evocatively filtered guitar strums recalling late-period Beatles, and from here on in, it becomes evident that the DPs have finally managed to pitch the art/pop quota exactly right, and that in doing so they might just have elevated themselves to the position of standout creative role models for a newly forward-thinking musical generation. Everyone should have heard by now about the laugh-out-loud total freaking genius of lead single ‘Stillness is the Move’, how it seems to suggest a perfect synthesis of post-Timbaland r’n’b pop and leftfield adventurousness, and on top of this just sound so effortlessly instantaneous. It's so physically joyous as to literally knock the breath out of you the first time you hear it.
In fact, although ‘Stillness …’ is surely the album’s crystalline apotheosis, there are many such moments of gleeful profundity that seem to dismantle the divide between cerebral high art and populism in a way that offers hope for civilization as a whole (I’m not even joking). Despite an ominous title and trademark disorienting art-music backing vox, opener ‘Cannibal Resource’ is almost ludicrously winning and accessible, from the enticingly direct address of the album’s first lyric (‘Look around at everyone …’) to the Zep-invoking funk grind of the verses, not to mention a hooky chorus complete with handclaps (even if these are of the artsy, rhythmically off-kilter variety; ‘Hey Mickey’ this most certainly aint). Likewise, ‘Temecula’ and ‘The Bride’ harness John Renbourn-style drop-tuned guitars to abrupt time-signature shifts and startlingly variegated arrangements, all the while, somewhat paradoxically, managing to retain a grounding in rationality by way of the delicate, florid folk-romanticism of Dave Longstreth’s immaculately-shaped melodic lines (restrained here in a way that seems more sensible than sell-out, bolstering the potency of his songwriting rather than taking away its mojo).
The sequencing of a truly great album should always act as a metaphor for the sense of discovery that its listeners feel on hearing it; it should embody a sense of gradual unfurling, of layers deepening over the course of a tracklisting, of shifts between tracks that are surprising and thought-provoking, but in a way that comes across as logical and fluid within the overarching imaginative structure of the work as a whole, and Bitte Orca is no exception to this principle. After the visceral peak that is ‘Stillness is the Move’ comes a shockingly lovely picked guitar-and-strings ballad called ‘Two Doves’, sung with grace and slaying pathos by vocalist Angel Deradoorian. Next up is a further lurch into contrast with the expansive 6½ mins of ‘Useful Chamber’. Some reviewers might have pointed to the latter as the album’s representative centerpiece, but for me, it’s ‘Two Doves’ that functions in this way, encapsulating Bitte Orca’s masterly ability to let complexity and seriousness (‘our bed is like a failure …’) shine through a microcosmically condensed, wonderfully simple premise. It blurs the complex/simple, basic/pretentious duality to the point that it seems to belong to an inferior, and now (hopefully, surely) bygone era of recent history.
There is so much to savour and adore within the baroque involutions of Bitte Orca. There’s the fact of Longstreth’s continued synthetic ingenuity in incorporating African guitar stylings into a primarily Western folk-pop-classical-grounded music (surely the only way for the electric guitar to proceed as a viable, non-nostalgic instrument in popular music). Then there’s the fact of those sublime backing vocals, unearthly textures that will bore holes deep, deep into the epicentre of your consciousness (check them in ‘Useful Chamber’ about 3½ mins in, possibly the album’s greatest What the fuck? Oh I see moment, or check them in the chorus to ‘No Intention’, another of Bitte’s formal-melodic highlights). There are moments of quite ridiculous instrumental virtuosity, and there are moments that seem to encapsulate the rush of instantaneous, ephemeral childish wonder that you get with a bona fide great pop hook. People will be poring over the minutiae of this record for years, feeding off its entrails, making use of its singular instructional template for how it is still possible to create organically futuristic, experimentalist alt-rock, even after 20-odd years of corporatism, identity-loss and artistic atrophy in Anglo-American music.
I still haven’t got a clue what ‘bitte orca’ means. Even the supposedly omniscient internet couldn’t help; the best it could throw up was ‘bitte’ as German for ‘please’, and ‘orca’ as Latin for ‘whale’. But maybe this stands as a good title for the record after all. This is an album that is defined by its ability to crank a world of mystique and sophistication out of the most rudimentary of monosyllables, a rallying cry for the continuation of pop music as the highest of high art forms. ‘Bitte orca’ is a title that encapsulates all the mystery and precious beauty of a life-affirming record that ultimately defies analysis. That we need many more like it, especially right here in the UK, should go without saying. Kasabian, Little Boots, and their ilk have taken our national obsession with mediocrity and pastiche way, way beyond a joke. Why isn’t anyone laughing?