"Experimental" is one of those nebulous words that we use as shorthand for a lot of complicated ideas. Whenever I hear a band's music described as "experimental" I always assume this is a different way of saying "noisy" or "abrasive." Yet the root of the word--experiment--is closer to what I should be thinking of: music and songs as experiments, as attempts to produce something new or original. Often the most "experimental" music of the past becomes assimilated by culture at large to the point where it ceases to seem so, well, experimental. A good deal of the best albums by the Beatles were pretty experimental for their time but they are usually just described as "pop" music today.
Which brings me to Bitte Orca, an album that splits the difference between "pop" and "experimental" more than any in recent memory. The instruments and vocals of the album are directly out of pop music: sweet melodies and powerful soul/R&B/60s influenced voices. Yet this is filtered through the lens of a searching experimenter, the songs seeming to suddenly shift at the drop of a hat. This brings to mind the "experimental pop" of, say, the Fiery Furnaces, who also similarly play with song structure and time signatures. But Dirty Projectors are far more fractured and herky-jerky and less art/prog rock.
I've been listening to this album as well as the "reimagining" of Black Flag's Damaged that the Dirty Projectors did a few years ago, and I'm still not sure if I like this music or not. It makes a bit more sense and seems less chaotic after a few listens, but I still can't shake the feeling that they didn't go far enough into the pop side with Bitte Orca. For every thrilling moment of unexpected brilliance there's one that falls flat or feels willfully, perversely random. Maybe I just want them to get rid of the experiments, since in my opinion the album's best song is 'Stillness Is The Move', which is the most traditional one here, almost veering toward an electro-R&B groove with sweet female vocals. Furthermore, if you reassembled the pieces of 'Useful Chamber' into a more "standard" format and shaved off a minute or two, you'd have something that's, admittedly, way less interesting but also way more enjoyable.
So, I'm torn on Bitte Orca. I can see what all the other critics are getting on about, praising this album to such great extents, but...I don't know. I feel as though I should enjoy this album more than I do since I usually go in for the "experimental" critical darlings, but half of the time I feel like it's too much work to listen to this album. Granted, their Damaged reworking is more "difficult" and not as successful as most claim it is, but even the steps toward accessibility on Bitte Orca may not be quite enough.
To put it another way, when our children get around to the Dirty Projectors, they'll either hail them as a visionary band or a strange historical curio. Anyway, For my current 2009 money, Bitte Orca is too weird and experimental for the pop crowd and either too pop or not successful enough for the experimental crowd. Maybe I need to keep coming back to this album until it clicks, but every time I listen to it I go back and forth between "this is genius" and "this is wank." Great art often provokes extreme reactions, so I'm going to err on the side of caution and recommend this one.