It’s gauche, of course, to fixate on the boldface-name, see-and-be-seen socialite aspects of Friday night’s highly touted Björk/Dirty Projectors benefit fete at Housing Works—as opposed to concentrating on, oh, I don’t know, the music. Quit gawking at Haley Joel Osment, stay off your goddamn Twitter, and just soak it all in: quite possibly the most defiantly idiosyncratic Really Famous Musician of our time holding court in a tiny Soho bookstore, joining the defiantly idiosyncratic Brooklyn art-rock band of the moment in a fragile, vocally ornate, gorgeously bizarre song suite about whale-watching and being-watched-by-whales.
Quite the surreal scene, though, with David Byrne and M.I.A. lurking (separately) in the balcony’s weddings/etiquette section as rangy Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton further obstructs your view on the sightlines-deficient ground floor (hey, it’s a bookstore), the premises romantically (i.e., very, very dimly) lit and hot as balls. Nothing much to do there for a while but gawk, knock back a Stella or two, and use your cell phone for illumination as you read the last lines of various Tom Clancy novels (“Thank you, Mr. President”) and watch opening act #2, an emphatically vivacious Icelandic folk singer named Ólöf Arnalds, cover Caetano Veloso. We’re not sure exactly what we’re in for tonight, and we’re uncertain if the emotional/artistic catharsis this experience aims to provide will ultimately prove as valuable as the fact that we get to tell everyone we were there to experience it. Indeed, the catharsis, when it comes, is awfully cathartic, but it only lasts, like, 20 minutes. We thirst for a Russian novel and come away with a handful of tantalizing aural Twitters.
Not kidding about that whale thing, BTW. The DPs emerge first, equally rangy frontman Dave Longstreth flanked by a skittish upright bassist and a stunning female vocal trio all gathered around one mic, alternately cooing, purring, bleating, hiccupping, ululating, and demurely howling, their harmonies unsettling and ungodly beautiful in equal measure, calmly delivering what might as well be vintage Dadaist radio jingles for Ovaltine. Longstreth’s voice, too, is lithe but volatile, his swift ascents into sweet falsetto constantly threatening to bend and splinter into discordant shrieks. (Not tonight, though. Hey, it’s a bookstore.) His jittery acoustic guitar zig-zags rhythmically and geographically: Brazil to Africa to environs farther East. The crew expertly stumbles and swaggers through a handful of tunes from the imminent Bitte Orca, as challenging and uncompromising a Potential Brooklyn Record of the Summer as you could possibly imagine, the ladies essentially singing in binary code—ooooh representing 1, aaaaah representing 0—long sighs punctuated by short, blunt bursts of delight, confusion, ennui.
And then it’s time for the main event, and Dave sets the scene: A few weeks back, vocal trio member Amber Coffman went whale-watching from the cliffs of Northern California’s Mount Wittenberg. This here suite purports to “imagine the moment Amber saw this whale, and the whale saw her.”
This will require Björk’s assistance.
If it’s a pliant, mesmerizing, thunderous, possibly whale-evoking singer you desire, she’s really your only option. Resplendent in an elegant blue dress, flashing a shy but commanding smile, she grabs her mic with both hands, and wails, slithering and swooping through each vowel sound with her own lithe volatility, each iconic, inimitable hard-K sound cracking like a glacial reef. Of a piece with Bitte Orca‘s exuberantly baroque lullabies, the suite is a marvel of ethereal noodling spiked with brief flashes of pop-song clarity, though whether Longstreth or Björk are taking the lead, the lyrics are tough to decipher—both figuratively and literally. (Is it “I won’t make myself a supplicant to no other embrace”?) She’s a commanding presence, of course, but still meshes easily with the binary mini-choir, crouching behind the other ladies when she’s not singing, all but out of sight, deferential.
Each break in the action is met with raucous, whooping applause at odds with the delicacy of the action itself. Even the piece’s climax, wherein Björk stares down the whale—”We looked into each other’s eyes and realized . . . through that moment we could glimpse an infinity”—is resoundingly triumphant, but still soft, frail, oh-so-quiet. Everyone goes nuts again, bookstore be damned. And then it’s over. I can count on one hand the number of shows I’ve attended that I actively wished were longer. This is one. A long, boisterous call for an encore goes unheeded: “They are very thankful for your applause,” our emcee assures us. Well, good.
And then it’s back to the see-and-be-seen socialite shit: The Housing Works throng migrates, seemingly en masse, to the absurdly oversize and over-extravagant new Cooper Square Hotel, with lovely, vertiginous penthouse-balcony views of the decidedly non-extravagant downtown grit that surrounds it, and Björk herself “DJing,” whiling out to Clipse’s “Trill” as an increasingly drunken scrum in a crowded back room whiles out along with her, everyone mentally composing the stories they’ll tell their friends about this even as they dance, long before the story’s even over, about the moment we looked into the whale’s eyes, and the whale looked into ours.