Dirty Projectors + Björk Dirty Projectors + BjörkMount Wittenberg Orca
The story has already been explained, and although it isn’t necessary to go over it again, a summary might be good to put the immediate reflections on “Mount Wittenberg Orca” into perspective. Dave Longstreth explains it all on the project’s website (look under “letter”): Brandon Stosuy, of Stereogum, asked him and Björk, separately, to participate in a benefit concert to help AIDS patients and both agreed to do so. Later, Björk agreed to collaborate with the New York band on what would end up becoming something like a pocket opera performed in a book shop in Brooklyn, with a strong ecological theme. Mount Wittenberg is the enclave on the outskirts of San Francisco where Amber Coffman, one of the two ladies of Dirty Projectors, was spending a spring afternoon when she was hypnotised by the sight of a pod of whales. So the collaboration with Björk became just that: a fantasy of dreamy chamber pop about cetaceans and other marine life, a celebration of wildlife and solidarity within the same animal species, in which each of the four voices in play –Amber, Björk, Angel Deradoorian and Longstreth– have defined roles: where our Icelandic queen is the mother whale, the rest are the babies.
Contemporary pop is rarely daring enough to try something like this. The final result is closer to an EP than to the album –it’s a scarce 21 minutes, only in digital format, on sale for voluntary donation (anything you like, between US$ 7 and 100), which will go to helping National Geographic fight for the conservation of the most delicate marine ecosystems, but its conceptual solidity gives it the aura of an important work. Its composition took place in Longstreth’s head, firstly in May of 2009, and it wasn’t until a year later that Dirty Projectors and Björk –promotional commitments and the tour of last year’s art-pop smash hit, “Bitte Orca”, prevented them from going back to the songs– managed to get together to record the final version of “Mount Wittenberg Orca”. It must be said that Björk’s participation is only as a guest voice; none of the songs were written by her, nor do they bear her stamp, beyond the part that she sings. If Dirty Projectors exists as a band in expansion or compression according to Dave Longstreth’s needs or desires, this should be considered a miniature in which the group has grown, and among the women there is an Icelander with a wild elfin trill and a breathtaking amount of experience to her credit. It is particularly interesting to notice that Björk, always accustomed to giving orders and handing out the tasks in her albums –which aren’t operas, but which are virtuoso pieces, complex, with underlying narratives– here lets herself be led by Longstreth’s lead. On his part, he demonstrates what could be guessed about many of Dirty Projectors’ albums: he could have been a good writer of songs for Björk, as the man who could come up with the key for deciphering the sound of the album that is heir to “Homogenic”.
“Mount Wittenberg Orca” allows for a double reading: it is a project of Dirty Projectors with Björk (there is truly no friction between the voices, they all come together naturally, without any part standing out above the other; Björk imposes herself over Amber and Angel because her voice has more grain, more personality, and more strength, but that’s all) or it’s the album that Longstreth dreamed of writing for Björk. It works both ways. The beginning is magnificent: “Ocean” is dominated by a cavernous sound —do we accept it as drone?– over which the “whales” make underwater sounds, long, deep onomatopoeias; the introduction, an opening, like in operas, gives way to the first songs. “On and ever Onward” is a precise composition in which Longstreth perfectly reconciles his obsession with high and low culture, minimalism –the plucked voices in the background have an air of Laurie Anderson– and popular song (the melody could be Irving Berlin); it sets the tone for the rest of the composition. “When the World Comes to an End” pursues the same balance, with the voices turned around –at least Dave’s, which joins in here for the first time– marking baroque scales on a cotton melody.
Whispers and warbles are the icing on the cake here, and the complicity between the mother whale and the baby whales, between the sharpness of Björk’s voice and the smaller sparks from the women of Dirty Projectors, is perfect; the final instrumentation has a skeletal simplicity: soft drums and guitar. Longstreth has achieved something very important here: he has recovered the long tradition of American vocal groups and music hall, adapting it to the format of the arty mini-opera, giving it coherence in spite of its brevity, completing the blending of what we have to understand to be a piece of impeccable pop candy: cheap, short and delicious, which invites you to repeat it as many times as you like, and without fear: neither Dirty Projectors nor Björk cause cavities, although they can raise the sugar levels in your eardrums. Tom Madsen
"On and Ever Onward"