With every passing musical generation, one particular artist manages to straddle the middle ground between the avant-garde and the popular more successfully than any other. In the 80s it was David Byrne’s Talking Heads that managed to unite instantly catchy hit singles with polyrhythmic experiments on the same LP. Then, in the 90s, Bjork broke free of the Sugarcubes’ indie-pop shackles to record old-time show tunes alongside glitch-infused electro, and since the new century it’s been the turn of Radiohead to popularise the intellectual (or, latterly, to intellectualise the popular) with a series of records that began with ‘Kid A’ and appears to have found its natural balance with ‘In Rainbows’.

Now, as the noughties draw to a close and Radiohead sell out more stadiums than Girls Aloud, Dirty Projectors’ central figure David Longstreth looks to be making a bid for the hallowed role of approachable intellectual with his latest offering, and he’s certainly on the right track. While little on ‘Bitte Orca’ will trouble national radio playlists, the album nonetheless represents a forward step for the band into popular territory, even if their back foot is still firmly planted in the art school.The popular/high-art tussle is evident on nearly every track here. ‘No Intention’, for example, is a Paul Simon classic right until the last minute, literally, upon which 60 seconds of continually layered hi-life guitar serve to intrigue and alienate in equal measure. Similarly, ‘Two Doves’ has all the campfire qualities of Nico’s ‘These Days’, but is produced and arranged like a delicate, recently unearthed demo rather than the sheeny ballad it could be. The result shows off Longstreth’s populist songwriting streak, and is the most beautiful thing on the whole record, but one gets the impression that the production is half-designed to protect the band’s artsy reputation.

‘Bitte Orca”s seven-minute centrepiece, ‘Useful Chamber’, sees Longstreth yelp the album’s nonsensical title repeatedly over several different sections. It is also the album’s most joyous track, perhaps hinting at where the band feels most comfortable. Indeed, only the closing ‘Fluorescent Half Dome’ plays with a remotely straight bat: an elegant, almost traditional waltz, complete with strings and descending basslines, it is the most obvious nod towards the classic songwriter that Longstreth chooses not to be – yet.

But regardless of what ‘Bitte Orca’ comes to represent in the career of its creators, its individuality and duality make it a massively compelling listen. In the same way that ‘Remain in Light’, ‘Post’ and ‘Kid A’ all were before it, this record is one that’s at once catchy but discordant, fidgety but still, and both fascinating and highly enjoyable for it.

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