Dirty-Projectors-LP

Dirty Projectors and Bjork are not artists known for their embracing of simplicity. Between them, they’ve written albums constructed purely from human vocal samples (Bjork’s 2004 album ‘Medulla’), covered entire records by 80s hardcore punks Black Flag from memory (Dirty Projector’s astonishing 2007 LP ‘Rise Above’) and released albums as a series of apps (Bjork’s recent ‘Biophilia’). It might therefore be fair to anticipate a joint Dirty Projectors/Bjork effort to be pretty far up the batshit scale of crazy and, on that count, ‘Mount Wittenberg Orca’ doesn’t disappoint. It is, after all, a song cycle sung from the point of view of a family of whales: lead Projector David Longstreth plays the part of a hiker high up on the eponymous northern Californian mountain looking out to sea and observing a family of orca whales frolicking in the Pacific, Bjork takes the part of momma whale and the three Dirty Projectors backing singers, themselves as slickly oiled a vocal unit as you’re ever likely to hear, are the whale cubs. Any instrumentation is used sparsely and quietly, as emphasis is placed on the vocal interactions of the group, and the album is over in under 22 minutes. Needless to say, Adele this ain’t.

However, it isn’t a Dirty Projectors or Bjork album either. At least, it doesn’t feel like one: while some of the stylistic touchstones might be in place – tangy, razor-sharp harmonies from Dirty Projectors’ camp, sleepy-throaty vocals from Bjork’s – ‘Mount Wittenberg Orca’ is a departure for both artists, for better and for worse. The most obvious shift is that, save for an all-too-brief twang on ‘No Embrace’, Longstreth’s guitar is nowhere to be heard. The same goes for the rest of the Dirty Projector’s instruments, and the result is a clean, clear soundscape that places the singing centre stage. When that decluttering works, it magnifies the tenderness of all the combined voices to gorgeous effect. When it doesn’t, the suddenly isolated backing singers sound shrill, overly acidic and faintly comic. Equally, the speed with which the album was recorded – everything was wrapped up in three days with a deliberate first-thought-best-thought approach – is a blessing and a curse: the album frequently sounds more fresh and invigorated than either of its contributors’ previous work, but that sparkle comes at the expense of occasionally under-explored arrangements.

When it received its digital release last year (through a website which raised money for whale conservation, lest the concept be compromised), Longstreth described ‘Mount Wittenberg Orca’ as “Bitte Orca’s younger, hotter sister”, and the comparison with the Dirty Projector’s last album stands up both positively and negatively: this is certainly rawer, more immature and more aesthetically stunning, but the complexity and the allure within it is often only skin deep. Nowhere here is there the slow unveiling at which both Bjork and Dirty Projectors are so skilled – the lack of instrumentation and the recording haste has rendered the record’s hit instant and bewitching but ultimately thin. While it’s as startlingly original as anything in either contributor’s discography, and a fascinating, enjoyable and inspiring album in isolation, its tantalising brevity and showy shallowness only emphasises the feeling of an opportunity missed for something truly extravagant.

By Sam Walton