Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Album of the Week: The Dirty Projectors "Bitte Orca"

Before you read the rest of this review, please allow me to preface with the following statement: I don't ever set out to slag anyone. Most of the time, I like to write about the cool stuff I like - and think you readers might like, too - and ignore the dross. Sometimes, though, there are events that are high-profile enough that commentary seems merited, even if it isn't always upbeat or celebratory.

In my humble, amateur music critic opinion, I feel that the release and subsequent critical fawning over The Dirty Projectors new album, Bitte Orca, is just such an event. Even the most jaded, critically belligerent writers are absolutely shitting themselves over it. I came a little late to The Dirty Projector party - I'm barely conversant about Rise Above, the band's previous release before Bitte Orca, and not at all knowledgeable of anything before that. In other words, there will be no nose-in-the-air Graceful Fallen Mango drops here - I needed wikipedia just to make that comment!

Still, I knew that lots of smart people loved Rise Above and that Bitte Orca was getting the kinds of reviews that English professors could use as journalistic examples of hyperbole. For example, Stereogum posed the question of whether this is the album of 2009 (in the second week of June), while New York Magazine wondered if the band would be the next big Brooklyn act to make "the leap" (an accomplishment they were as vague in defining as they were in predicting the band's likelihood to achieve it). The usually eminently reasonable I Guess I'm Floating said the album was quickly becoming his favorite of the year, and Pitchfork even gave the record a 9.2! (I tried to search the Brooklyn Vegan site to familiarize myself with their review, but couldn't actually find one amidst all the indie tabloid gossip and "news"- oh well.)

Anyway, consider all this prelude to my purchase of the album. Unless it is something I'm super geeked about, I don't usually pick up brand new releases the day they come out, and rarely get right into them once they've joined my collection. Still, the pre-release hype was so strong for Bitte Orca, I snatched it up pretty quick, and started listening to it right away. Unfortunately, I was disappointed right away, too, and the last 5-6 weeks have seen me putting it away and taking it back out over and over again, trying to find the X factor I must be missing for why I not only don't love this album, I actively dislike it.

Eventually, I had listened to the album so many times I knew I'd given it a more-than-reasonable chance and have made my decision: it just isn't very good.

Why isn't it? Well, that's a more difficult, and potentially landmine-filled, question to answer. I don't want to starting firing ad hominem missiles here, but it seems like somewhere along the way band leader Dave Longstreth confused brilliance with laziness. I can count the moments on this album where I find myself saying, "ooh, that thing they just did was really smart" on exactly zero hands. Far more often, however, I find myself saying things like "Why on Earth would they do that?" So often, the recording seems like they randomly paired the singing with background music, rather than constructing the song as an integrated whole. When the pop hooks that every other critic seems to laud show up, they are often cramped or contradicted by poor production choices, with a chronic problem of always needing to change the time signature or style just because throughout the record. Other times, the vocals seem like the first time a singer is trying out the guitarist's lyrics without a clear idea of how the song is eventually going to sound like. And, at the album's worst moments, it seems like they were trying to be terrible on purpose. For example, "Stillness is the Move" seems like the worst Janet Jackson/Mariah Carey song ever recorded, with absolutely trite lyrics and positively poor production. Indeed, throughout the record, the female vocals are consistently off-putting, most notably during the parts in "Useful Chamber" that are so abrasive they simply must be that way on purpose.

Still, not everything is terrible on this record. There are quite a few points where I really like Longstreth's vocals, including points in "Cannibal Resource" and "The Bride." I also dig the occasional guitar work on "The Bride" and the strings on "Two Doves" and "Fluorescent Half Dome," the title of which reminds me for some reason of some dystopian novel I once read but can't recall the name and two thorough bookshelf searches have failed to remind me. Moreover, they released a really interesting video, which I first learned of a couple weeks ago thanks to All Songs Considered's Robin Hilton.

These few bright spots, unfortunately, are not nearly enough to redeem an otherwise entirely bleak experience, and I'm resolved to give this the second-lowest rating on the rating scale I devised back in May: Forget it. Erase that sonic shit from your mind.

All that being said, as I noted at the outset of this post, I don't really want to be negative. So while I'm telling you to avoid purchasing Bitte Orca, let me blurb an album that has been released in 2009 that I really do dig, the self-titled LP by The Phenomenal Handclap Band.

This album also came out in June, this band is also from NYC, and if you are the kind of listener that likes diversity in a band's sound to accompany its poppy, dancy awesomeness, this one is for you. If the name sounds familiar already, it is probably because you've heard their track "15 to 20."

That's a great one to get started with, but not even in my top five favorite tracks on. Instead, "All of the Above" is just grand in its 70s soul-disco vibe, while "Baby" has become a fixture on every mix tape I've made since I first heard it and will make the rest of this year. My taste, however, goes a little toward the soul-ish, which is reflected by these tracks. If you are more of a psych-pop guy, you'd probably dig "The Journey to Serra Da Estrala" and "Give It A Rest," while indie rockers will prefer the aforementioned "15 to 20" and album-closer "The Circle Is Broken."

I really, really dig this album - it is experimental, upbeat, groovy, and excellent. I love the collective vibe, the group energy, the diversity and the retro hooks. You could probably take the majority of the sentences in the reviews I linked to at the beginning of this post that fawn on The Dirty Projectors and they'd be far more accurate if you did a "find and replace" search, substituting The Phenomenal Handclaps in their stead.

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