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Wait, what? You’ve never heard any albums about whales? Ok, maybe you picked up a $1 copy of Sounds of the Humpback Whale on vinyl back in college, but we’re talking about albums about whales, not sung by whales. No disrespect to whales, but their lyrics are always a bit too abstract for my tastes. Maybe I just don’t “get it,” but I can’t understand what they’re talking about.
Mount Wittenberg Orca
All jokes aside, there really is an incredibly fresh and enjoyable album about whales. Mount Wittenberg Orca, a collaborative effort from Dirty Projectors and Björk, tells the story of a girl named Amber who interacts with a group of whales along the ridge of Mount Wittenberg, north of San Francisco. The album does not follow a story-like narrative in the lyrics, but the liner notes include introductory statements that describe the evolution of the story. The album is enjoyable simply on its musical merits, but the background story adds another level of interest. Amber is actually a member of the Dirty Projectors and David Longstreth, the group’s leader, wrote the album around an experience of hers.
Longstreth describes the evolution of the album over at Stereogum:
“In April 2009, Brandon Stosuy from Stereogum.com asked me if we wanted to play a benefit concert at a bookstore in New York. I said yes. He asked Björk the same thing, and she said yes. Then he asked us if we wanted to collaborate, and we said yes. Björk asked me what we should do, and I said, 'I don’t know, I guess I’d really love to write a bunch of new songs for us to sing together?' And she said Yes.
That same month, Amber from Dirty Projectors was walking along a ridge on Mount Wittenberg, north of San Francisco. She was looking out at the ocean and saw a little family of whales, as you sometimes do in April on the Northern California coast. I wrote some songs about it and sent them to Björk, who agreed to sing the part of the mom whale. The songs became Mount Wittenberg Orca. Amber and Angel and Haley sang the part of the kid whales, and I sang the part of Amber. We sang all week long and learned the music just in time to perform it at the bookstore on May 8th.”
Take a Listen
Mount Wittenberg Orca has a very unique sound. It’s everything that’s great about the Dirty Projectors mixed with Björk’s voice and an incredible arrangement of vocal harmonies. It sounds both old and new at the same time. It incorporates hocketing, which is the sharing of a single melody among two or more voices or instruments. It creates a really interesting effect with different tones that makes it sound like they are bouncing back and forth. Here is a great demonstration of what they do, bouncing the vocal lines off each other.
The album starts with “Ocean,” which replicates the cries of the orcas, and then jumps into my favorite song on the album “On and Ever Onward.” In this song, Björk plays the role of the mother orca, singing to her calves about what it’s like to live in the ocean. My 3 year old daughter was particularly fascinated by this song and calls it “love is all around us.”
The next song, which is a great demonstration of the hocketing technique, is “When the World Comes to an End.” In this song, Amber, whose lines are sung by lead singer Longstreth, shares her admiration and love for the whales.
Check out the album for the full narrative. You could probably listen to the whole album and never know it was about whales, but the liner notes tie the story together in a great way. So, if you’re on the fence about listening to an album about whales, worry not. It’s a great pop record with an incredibly fresh and unique sound. As a long time Björk fan, I have to admit that I’d lost interest in some of her recent projects, but this album is the perfect venue for her unique voice. Proceeds from the album benefit the National Geographic Society.
Tommy M, the unofficial “whale” genre expert of SMCL. Seriously, give this album a chance.