Compared to say Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, or maybe Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Dirty Projectors and Björk seem to be relatively obvious musical bedfellows. Both share a love of musical experimentation, multi-faceted vocals and unorthodox rhythms combined with an underlying pop sensibility, and have shifted restlessly from project to project on creative résumés that encompass everything from Black Flag cover albums to Inuit throat singers.
Mount Wittenberg Orca had its genesis back in May 2009, when Projectors front man Dave Longstreth was inspired to write the music after a conversation with Björk about the small theatres in Italy where opera was born in the 1500s. The end result was, somewhat bafflingly, a concept album about whales, and was first performed entirely unamplified in Manhattan bookstore Housing Works the following month before being recorded in 2010 and sold as a download from the website Mountwittenbergorca.com to benefit the National Geographic Society. The album raised over US$40,000 to promote sustainable ocean programmes, and is now finally being made available as a physical release.
So is it worth the wait? Well, yes and no. Predominantly a vocals-only album, with only understated percussion and bass for company most of the time, Mount Wittenberg Orca (named, incidentally, after a Californian hiking destination and the Latin name for a killer whale) is undoubtedly an impressive show case for the respective talents of Longstreth, Björk and the Projectors’ triumvirate of female singers – Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle. The Icelandic icon shares lead duties with the Brooklynite’s languid croon, but the other three vocalists certainly aren’t overlooked; in fact, their shrill, often otherworldly harmonies are in many ways the most distinctive ingredient, rather like the Trio Bulgarka on Kate Bush’s The Sensual World album. Lyrically the songs are also intriguingly eccentric, operating on the premise that the performers are a group of whales singing to one another, with lines like ‘beautiful mother up ahead of us/can you see us play inside the waves’ typical of the prevailing marine imagery.
Mount Wittenberg Orca begins with Ocean, a series of wordless sighs that slowly build in volume backed by what sounds like a didgeridoo, before Björk joins the fray on the weirdly funky On And Ever Onwards, arguably the collection’s highlight. She’s in typically fine, playful voice, but it’s the accompaniment of the Dirty Projectors girls that create the wonderful textures which make the song so compelling, whether it’s oscillating gently in the background or rising in unison for the call and response chorus. Longstreth makes his first appearance on When The World Comes To An End, which also features an unexpected guitar solo, and glides gracefully over his softly cooing band mates on No Embrace. Yet it’s only on the last song, the stately, elegant All We Are, that he and Björk finally duet properly – and very lovely it is too.
Now for the downside – with just seven tracks clocking in at a paltry 21 minutes, this quite simply isn’t a genuine full length album and leaves the listener both enchanted and frustrated in equal measure. There are some fabulous ideas and real musical virtuosity on show here, but they haven’t been given enough time and attention to fully realise their potential. As an EP taster, Mount Wittenberg Orca would have been great, but by positioning itself as the finished article, one is left with the sense of an incomplete journey and a wasted opportunity.