Thursday, July 02, 2009

Remade Horizon

It's the artwork first. On the front, Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman, as suitably divine as ever, heads joined in blobs of colour; on the back, Dave Longstreth in similar pose (complete with trademark baggy college jumper) with the robust profile of Nietzsche. Whether to characterise this as arrogance or wit depends on your opinion of contents herein. Personally…

Although they had created some 4 releases (if you include the ‘New Attitude’ EP) beforehand, it was only with Rise Above (released close to the end of 2007 – it felt like a 2008 record) that they really came into public view. Indeed, it was Plan B who were most forward and enthusiastic in promoting them, including a front-cover feature in the January 2008 issue – and who were most prophetic in expecting great things from them. Rise Above transcended its tongue-in-cheek premise – who really believed Longstreth’s guff about recreating Damaged “from memory”? – to create a record of real delicacy and obliquely cathartic suffering: the most anthemically shredding of hardcore punk songs (“We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us, it’s no use”) transformed into a hammering, mid-paced ensemble cry, the wounded regaining their voices…. Its emotional logic didn’t betray what was, on the face of it, a deeply original record; as Emily Bick put it at the time, most of it was stuff you really have never heard of before. To repeat such a trick – or, rather, not to repeat anything – would have been something of an achievement. Would it be giving the game away to say… perhaps it would.

The first thing to note is that the whole ambience of Bitte Orca feels different from its predecessor: sunnier, more lush (having two extra members on board helps somewhat in this aspect) and more thickly orchestrated, its surfaces and sections tessellating with a perfectly consistent logic of their own, falling into coherency like the sides of a Rubik’s cube gradually going homogeneous, and, in a sense, less… conceptual than any preceding Projectors album. Not to say it is less smart than any of its predecessors. But the unifying threads of narrative (2005 ‘glitch-opera’ The Getty Address) or conceit (the Black Flag covers in Rise Above) are absent here. What holds it together is nothing more than its sense of invention, of adventure, its thrusting, democratic aesthetic.

If those conglomerations of adjectives make little sense, let’s consider the single, ‘Stillness Is The Move’. Percussion as finely tweaked as any Timbaland percussion track, over which a three-chord riff halfway, in texture, between 1970s Nigerian pop and a sped-up sitar, loopingly bursts like slow-falling fireworks. The vocals – three-part, at least one multi-tracked, threading through the entire work, interchanging and transforming into each other (the inseparability of lover and loved) – explode into being, bubbling melisma framing Amber’s central stand, currents of ‘oohs’, ‘aahs’, ‘bahs’ moving in from random angles, looped machine cut-ups hovering between words and vocalese drifting in from somewhere around the floor. Longstreth has repeatedly mentioned in interviews the influence of contemporary R&B – or at least, pop that has followed in the wake of Timb: Cassie, Rihanna, Danja’s productions for Britney Spears, and particularly Mariah Carey (Amber’s long, floating “ah-ah-aah-ah-aaaaah” towards the end could easily have come from Ms. Carey’s ten-gallon lungs). Here, the cyber-libido and overegged emotion of R&B are redirected into a hymn to persistence – to the support engendered by love – on the scale of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’: “After all that we’ve been through/I know that we’ll make it… There is nothing that we can’t do”. The old workaday scenario of Detroit soul remains – the knowledge that they’ll be “waiting tables in a diner”, but they will have each other: “I know that I’ll always have you/Oh, on a mountain forever baby/I can’t imagine anything better”. And yet, it is about nothing so mundane as a real situation – or at least not only; it seems to take that bond and raise it to a metaphysical level – just as Keats took a mere jar (“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!”) and made it a carrier of eternity. The video features Amber, Angel and Haley Dekle busting moves straight out of a TLC video in the cowls of priestesses from some forest religion, singing earnestly to camera. As the string section slowly glides past through the song’s second half, counterpointing the constant pinball thump of the rhythm section, Amber erupts into melisma that suggests nothing so much as the throes of an ecstatic love-rite. One senses, at once, the sheer care and thought with which it has the song has been constructed, and are completely pulled along, no thought going to the labour of the writer or arranger. There is nothing here resembling any tiresome meta-musical jokes; the R&B and electro-pop references (as in the languid theremin that opens ‘Useful Chamber’) are completely earnest, perfectly integrated into the structure of the songs with nary a stain of irony.

To say that the soundworld of R&B is ‘inhuman’ is hardly much of a stain, but here it is repurposed – with just as much beauty – as something utterly human: those breaths, cries and pre-verbal phonemes that drive the songs so relentlessly – that are, as Petra Davis says in her Plan B review, “this record’s inner logic… its loping gait, hungrily gaining ground” – are all testament to the gasping entities that originate them – caught, as always, in the rapture of Song, or love, or both, being indistinguishable. Longstreth, whose decidedly un-Rollinsian vocals were very much to the fore in Rise Above – circling back and forth on syllables, dragging the lyrics into baroque curlicues of cracked falsetto, counterpointed by the girls’ own flourishes – are driven into the background; consequently, it feels like a lighter, more Technicolor album than its predecessor – even, when on ‘Useful Chamber’, the guitars and drums break into the kind of attacks that punctuated Rise Above, it feels more joyous. On ‘Two Doves’, Angel’s vocal threads between sinuous and gentle acoustic guitar and strings that break from syrupy sweeps to cubist bursts. ‘Temecula Sunrise’ – a love song to abandoned desert towns – although sporting a lead vocal from Longstreth, is driven as much as anything by sustained explosions of “aaaaaahs” from Angel and Amber, alongside the constant thump of the drums, holding together its jump-cutting fractures. They signal, just as much as the harrowed 70s guitar solo that suddenly bursts out in the middle, sheer jouissance: the imagined desert utopia of Buckminster Fuller’s hippy progeny, the joy of another day of sun and company, “hittin’ the spot, like Gatorade, whoa”.

It all flows into the closer, ‘Fluorescent Half Dome’, which sounds like a love-song from inside a reluctant super-villain’s mountain lair: Longstreth explained in an interview with Plan B that “A half dome is a really unique rock face in Yosemite Park in California, and the idea of a fluorescent half dome…” Sighing synth is punctuated by explosions of drum and snapping percussion as Longstreth croons of the loved-one he searches for to retire with from the world: “And when I, finally find, you/Will I know?” With nary a breath he jumps into the title phrase, drawing it out into an orgasmic string of gulps and utterances. As it builds up through each verse, the girls’ vocal abstractions join, sculpting themselves onto this central thread, bows and pizzicato passages from the strings meeting the unending flow of percussion at strange angles, drawing out into an end-passage where the three voices tumble about each other, weaving back-and-forth around the phrase, synth and strings moving according to their own strange logic, the drums undergoing periodic time-travels back to the volleying outros of the 70s. I’m surprised that Longstreth is not himself a music-writer (like John Darnielle): the old jibe about ‘dancing to architecture’ is seriously twisted here, in another song about buildings and love (rather than food) that is itself so self-consciously architectural, so aware of its songness. When it drops to a coda of just synth, it’s almost a relief: that something so complex can at least be brought to a conclusion.

It’s nice to know we were right all along.


Blogger Murphy said...

no no no no no.

This album is merely the sound of the post-obscurity internet generation. Ever since Napster, 'Pop' music has been on a trajectory of 'a little bit weirdness', and this is just the latest installment.

Sure, it's seriously professional, but it's just so bloody cynical. Case in point- the strings are truly, truly awful, as bad as Oasis' 'Whatever'. eurgh.

I mean, I really enjoy the album, how could it be possible not to? But I'm not convinced, not at all.

July 2, 2009 at 7:44 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I don't think it's in the least bit cynical - I presume you mean in the careerist sense. The schematics of the songs - the puzzle-piece arrangements that only just seem to fit together - are too strange to be a pandering to that famous phantasm, 'mass-taste'. And it's a srs relief to have a band interested in both weirdness and professionalism after a decade of increasingly-diminishing-returns 'shambolic' indie - I see it as a new New Pop of sorts.

And we'll just have to agree to disagree about the strings.

July 3, 2009 at 1:32 AM  
Blogger Murphy said...

sure, I think that's it's obvious that I'm being very uncharitable, and I do think that the album is the product of some seriously brilliant pop minds.

I have been told that it's a lot weirder than what I hear when I listen to it, maybe so. Again, I think it's a great album.

I think my unease is just that, yes, of course it's good that 'better' music is occupying the mainstream more and more, but I'm wondering if it's the same weirdness, the same quality that once existed, or, perhaps this is what weirdness actually sounds like, after you strip away all the accoutrements of scarcity and secret knowledge that have always gone with it...

July 3, 2009 at 6:02 AM  
Blogger Seb said...

"Weird" my ass. The most minor of syncopations and staying pedantically diatonic are not weird by any standard. Hell, if they were still so safe musically but were more interesting as characters (a la Kate Bush) they'd be genuinely weirder. But tokenist nods to music from 3rd world countries and being white while singing "soul" (to use the term as mere affectation) don't make something "weird".

Honestly, Dan, how can something that reminds you so clearly & distinctly of Timbaland and his wake be called "new"? Because they're skinny white people?

You can find far more interesting culturally-omnivorous pop (that actually was pop) with a touch of genuine mindfuck from the late '70s and early '80s: Peter Gabriel's 3rd album, Kate Bush's Never For Ever or Hounds of Love, Boney M, and anything with Eno's name on it.

Meanwhile, weirdness and professionalism have been working hand-in-hand very regularly since that last great boom of outré "pop" almost 30 years ago. It just wasn't reflected in the Matador/Sub Pop-defined mainstream of non-commercial rock. You'd have had to look to metal, electronic, and various dead-ends of underground hip-hop to find it.

And with all due respect Murphy ("make a Mariah Carey record" - spot on!), here's the best rejoinder to anyone singing Bitte Orca's praises.

July 4, 2009 at 12:16 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Well, Christ, if people had told me there was a backlash happening, I might have stayed on-message...

"Tokenist"? I'm not so sure. It seems to me more of a scrambling of signals - white/black, indie/urban, 1st/3rd-world - or a repositioning of generic signifiers that strikes me as genuinely interesting - unexpected, certainly - as well as being sonically pleasing. I know well enough it's been done before (got the albums, t-shirt, David Toop's 'Ocean of Sound' & 'Exotica', etc.), but that doesn't diminish the aesthetic dimension.

I'm not making any case for it to be canonised as part of the 'weird-pop' current that you mention (BTW, I've heard most of those albums already, and love most of them too). But the idea that I should spend my entire life listening to nothing but old music - the music of guys ten or more years older than me - is, to put it lightly, disheartening.

Murphy: you make an interesting point, and it's something I'm a bit troubled by myself. If all that comes of widespread access to deeply Other music is Vampire Weekend and this - wh/, I'll admit, might not stand up in 20 years in the way, say, 'Remain in Light' does - then it's probably something to worry about. It's something critics are going to have to keep an eye on...

July 4, 2009 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger Seb said...

Heavens, no, Dan, I'm not saying you're condemned to listen only to things from someone's dad's record collection. I'm saying the Dirty Projectors, contrary to all the cat-calling, ain't anything new. There are certainly bands out there doing exciting and challenging things right now - just not them.

July 4, 2009 at 8:01 PM  
Anonymous The Grain said...

I'm late as ever to get on this debate, nevermind, here's what we thought of Bitte Orca, posted a few weeks ago, with more than one eye on the UK music happenings of the moment

July 29, 2009 at 8:36 AM  

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