The new Dirty Projectors record, Bitte Orca, sounds as if mastermind David Longstreth took advice from the title of his 2007 triumph, Rise Above. He's elevated his approach beyond terrestrial trappings and used that fresh perspective to reassemble popular music right before our ears. R&B and Afrobeat are thus scrambled on Bitte Orca with as much freakish precision as pop, folk, and rock.
Of course, Rise Above wasn't just a Dirty Projectors album. It was Black Flag's 1981 masterstroke, Damaged, recalled from faded memory by Longstreth and projected onto a seasick landscape of weird time signatures, swarming vocal harmonies, and his twin attack of skittish guitar and modulating vocals. Anyone who had heard Dirty Projectors' 2005 Don Henley–inspired The Getty Address or its formative precursors had already been warned that Longstreth — once a musical composition major at Yale — enjoys setting unusual artistic parameters that he can then explore with childlike curiosity.
But for all its off-kilter majesty and flash-card genre signifiers, Bitte Orca isn't a concept album. It's simply a nine-song offering. A crucial factor in its success is that, after years of shifting lineups, Longstreth has solidified a regular crew of singer and guitarist Amber Coffman, singer and multi-instrumentalist Angel Deradoorian, and drummer Brian McOmber, now flanked by singer Haley Dekle and bassist Nat Baldwin.
Still very much the leader, Longstreth uses each member of his band. He writes songs specifically for Deradoorian and Coffman to sing, for example, while stepping back from the spotlight a bit. In streamlining his contributions, he makes the final product more accessible. But the group's yoyoing dynamics, crowded singing, and trebly stabs are right there from opener "Cannibal Resource." With repetitive lyrics and a tilted vocal turn, Longstreth reintroduces Dirty Projectors' eccentric pleasures. There are also swirls of delay at the start, and later a dismantled guitar riff reminding us how close this aesthetic is to Deerhoof's busy, melody-addled take on rock's earmarks.
"Temecula Sunrise" combines Longstreth's purred R&B falsetto with mathlike scene changes, deconstructive drums, and a glam-smacked guitar solo. He bends his voice again on "The Bride," lends a debonair streak to "Remade Horizon," and summons his inner Peter Gabriel amid sputtering drums and ambience for the intergalactic gospel of "Fluorescent Half Dome." He's also in full control of the laidback, handclapped "No Intention," one of Bitte Orca's best songs.
Other highlights include Deradoorian's feathery delivery on "Two Doves" — think Nico's "These Days" with more playfulness — and Coffman's inhabitation of mundane lyrical details on the would-be R&B crossover "Stillness Is the Move." Bitte Orca's centerpiece and utter summation, however, is the nearly seven-minute "Useful Chamber," which evolves from canned synth-pop to kooky hip-hop with choral flourishes and the noisy, repeated announcement of the album's title.
Like any great record, this one feels like a journey that pays off differently with each listen. There remains the question of the Dirty Projectors' live show, which has a reputation for being hit and miss. The band has, however, given strong performances recently with Björk and David Byrne, the latter of whom the group worked with on the standout "Knotty Pine" from Red Hot's Dark Was the Night compilation. Both live and on record, the band's tricky arrangements and unusual delivery reward the patience and concentration of listeners.
Complex yet uncluttered, Bitte Orca is the purest distillation yet of Longstreth's characteristic quirks and obsessions. Instead of eagerly leapfrogging his fans and peers, there's a feeling that he's waiting patiently while the rest of the world catches up to his vision.