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Dirty Projectors + Björk Mount Wittenberg Orca Review

EP. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Belated physical release for these elegant and accomplished tracks.

Chris Power 2011

Anyone who’s been to a Dirty Projectors concert will be aware – to an even greater extent than listeners to their recorded output – just what an elemental force the harmonised voices of Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle constitute: they’re Williamsburg’s own Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. On Mount Wittenberg Orca, a 21-minute suite of songs that sees the band join forces with Björk, the stripped-back instrumentation leaves a space these voices flood to frequently ecstatic effect.

Mount Wittenberg Orca, belatedly receiving a physical release after digital distribution in 2010, was originally composed for a performance at New York’s Housing Works bookshop in 2009. A year later the songs were recorded and sold online, with all proceeds going towards the National Geographic Society’s creation of international marine protected areas. That act of charity grew logically from the suite’s content: bandleader Dave Longstreth wrote these seven songs (on three of which Björk features) in response to a trip Coffman took to California where, near Mount Wittenberg, she watched whales. Longstreth plays Coffman, Björk is the mother whale, and Coffman, Deradoorian and Dekle are whale calves. What on paper sounds like a psychedelics-drenched concept album from 1969 works gloriously in practice. But what else did you expect from a band that pulled off a post-9/11 ‘glitch opera’ about Don Henley and an artist whose subjects embrace everything from curious aliens to bone marrow and the action of viruses on cells?

The suite’s key strength, and one of the advantages of brevity, is its focus. This is provided firstly by the supple weaving of Coffman, Deradoorian and Dekle, their voices providing the ornate spine upon which Björk and Longstreth, deeply individual singers who turn out to be highly complementary, can depend. Equally important is the simplicity of the sound: these songs were recorded live with minimal percussion, dabs of acoustic guitar, and an alternately plucked and bowed double bass. Only the lead vocals and a solitary electric guitar solo were overdubbed. The unity achieved by these two elements makes the work much more than a curiosity in Dirty Projectors’ discography.

The songs describe a push and pull between land and water mammals, the whales distrusting the "beautiful woman on the ridge at dusk". Lyrically Longstreth indulges in some fairly extreme anthropomorphism here. It’s a tactic decried by some in the animal conservation movement, but only the most militant hardliner could resist the exuberant call and response of On and Ever Onward. Describing a family of whales frolicking the waves, it’s probably the most purely joyous song either Dirty Projectors or Björk has ever produced. It, and its upbeat neighbours When the World Comes to an End and Beautiful Mother, are balanced by Sharing Orb, which is both meditative and strident, and the hard-won accord reached in the climactic All We Are, which quotes Nirvana’s All Apologies – "all in all is all we are" – to poignant effect. It’s an elegant end to an accomplished work.

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