There is no need for a song-by-song examination of The Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca. They all cohere into a trilling, thrilling whole. The numbers cast fond glances at art rock and modern R&B but refuse to settle in with either. The guitars are largely unplugged, with very little strumming, something which helps keep the songs unmoored and fresh even after multiple listens (I still can’t pin the individual tunes down in my head). Instead of riffs, there are complicated plucked figures – swirls of sounds that the voices can dance around. The drumming is splashy, crashing in when you least expect it, a necessary bit of violence to offset the delicacy of the vocals and guitars. It all comes together, song after song; in the enchanting backing vocal of “Cannibal Resource”, tossed at lightning speed between the three female vocalists; in the invigorating violence of “The Bride”; in the way “Fluorescent Half Dome” breaks down into what sounds like the end of the party and the dawn of a new day.
Bitte Orca’s that rare album which really is impossible to categorise, not because it hops or melds genres because it creates its own. If they are influences, they have been consumed and absorbed into the bloodstream of the band’s sound. Though I thought of Talking Heads the first time I heard them, and later Bjork (the band has collaborated with both), the Projectors are their own idiosyncratic snowflake. Talking Heads always seemed to be heading towards the groove in their songs; the Projectors are constantly dodging it (except on “Stillness is the Move”, a possible clue as to why this track was deemed most fit for radio play). And while they share Bjork’s off-kilter approach to vocalisation and sound, their harmonic juggling is based around melodies more welcoming than those of the combatively experimental Icelandic songstress.
No vocal combination has ever sounded the way the Projectors do on Bitte Orca. The reason is more than the sum of three superb female singers – Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, Haley Dekle – and Longstreth’s pleasant falsetto. It’s the way their voices are arranged, how they work in harmony and counterpoint to each other, how traditional ideas of backing vocals are transformed into something as unpredictable as birdsong. Most of the songs have Longstreth or one of the girls laying down the main melody, and the others circling and adding to it with little fills. Some of these interjections are like cuckoos peeping out of a clock, others like a bunch of children rushing through the door. The exhilaration of not knowing when or where the next voice is going to come at you from is what sets the Projectors apart from other superb contemporary vocal groups like the Fleet Foxes, who take their cues from the Beach Boys and other, more recognisable sources. It’s also what set Bitte Orca apart from the other albums released in 2009. And earlier that decade.