The ocean has long been an inspiration for artists of every persuasion. A dense and restless entity full of intrigue and creatures that, despite the scientific leaps and bounds of the last century, still remain a mystery and a source of endless fascination. Björk has been a frequent sonic sailor over her career, often paying ode to the big blue deep. On 1993′s ‘The Anchor Song’, she wanted to dive into it and stay there; on 2004’s ‘Oceania’, she took on the personality of the ocean itself as it tried to keep a rapport with the continents as they evolved over the centuries. Dirty Projectors have also paid homage to the waves, more specifically the whale on last year’s Bitte Orca, but only now on this collaborative mini-album have the band had the scope to explore this fascination fully.
This logical, albeit unexpected, collaboration has its roots in a one-off live performance in April 2009 at a New York housing benefit charity show curated by music journalist Brandon Stosuy. A year later, the artists returned to the same Brooklyn bookshop to record the seven-track song cycle using as little amplification and as few overdubs as possible after just three days’ rehearsal. The thematic thread centres on a family of whales spotted in the ocean below by Dirty Projectors member Amber Coffman as she walked along a ridge on the Northern California peak of the title. Each vocalist assumes the role of one member in the scenario; Björk the mother whale, Coffman, Haley Dekle and Amber Deradoorian the baby whales, and Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth as Coffman.
A short, wordless chant of vocal swoops and falls from Coffman, Deradoorian and Dekle, ‘Ocean’ provides Mount Wittenberg Orca with its rather abstract start. A deep, eerie drone pushes the piece along as the women hit some whalesong pitches just outside their comfort zones, instantly setting a mystical yet earthy tone. It’s quickly followed by the slightly contrasting ‘On & Ever Onwards’, a chirpy, midtempo campfire singalong where Björk takes the reins. Singing as the mother whale, she declares the ocean as their sanctuary (“On and ever onwards / our home is all around us”) while Longstreth and co. provide a minimal, lovable backdrop of quirky vocals and a sparkly guitar melody.
Longstreth picks up the pace on the percussive ‘When The World Comes To An End’ with a hectic but impressive set of vocal gymnastics with his lady counterparts. More dynamic still is ‘Beautiful Mother’, where the Dirty Projectors women let rip with some piercing vocal interplay alongside more toned-down, girlish verses romancing the creature’s majesty. Dazzling as the arrangements and their instinctive knack for harmonies are, they don’t necessarily make for easy listening for those less familiar with the band.
Björk returns on the brooding and beautiful ‘Sharing Orb’. The naïve optimism of the matriarch’s celebration on ‘On & Ever Onwards’ is turned on its head here as the whale condemns those who “Come into my home… / murdered my family, and leave me alone.” As grim as that sounds, Björk’s vocals are delightful, exposing a primal and almost Pagan energy we almost forgot she possessed beneath the sweeping orchestrations and electronics we’re all so used to. It’s a welcome reminder of just what colour Björk can bring to even her most random of side projects, and it’s great to hear her in someone else’s context again. She makes these songs her own without upstaging any of the Projectors’ commendable efforts.
Longstreth reassumes the lead for ‘No Embrace’ with its more familiar Dirty Projectors sound and rousing cymbal crash-heavy chorus, while the women do their best Pips-style doo-wops behind. Closer ‘All We Are’ leaves things on a thoughtful note as each character takes turns to have their say on the state of nature, building to the epic closing minute where all meld beautifully, pirouetting around each other’s improvisations. It’s moments like this that are reminiscent of Björk’s own a cappella opus Medúlla, and fans of her more experimental material will find the simplicity here wonderfully refreshing.
This collection may seem a little light on her contributions, but the Dirty Projectors have weaved her into this project wisely and productively, the maternal wisdom she brings to their enthusiastic execution brings Mount Wittenberg Orca both grace and cohesion. A notable and welcome addition to the catalogues of both acts, the project is made all the more worth celebrating as all proceeds from sales of the collection are to be donated to the National Geographic Society’s drive to establish whale-safe zones across the world’s oceans. Man, woman or orca, it’s win/win/win all round.
[www.mountwittenbergorca.com; June 30, 2010]