Dave Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors may be a genius. The back story of his latest record Rise Above is that while helping his parent’s move out of their house, he found a childhood relic, Black Flag’s Damaged cassette case. Instead of searching for the missing cassette, Longstreth took a post-modern approach to rekindling the album by re-recording Damaged from “memory.” The result is an interpretation filled with arpeggiated vocal and guitar melodies, feathery bass lines, and other nuances familiar to The Dirty Projectors that share virtually nothing with the radical rasping-over-lethal-guitars of the Black Flag classic.
With the final product so distanced from its inspiration, it's important to remember that many times over, musicians have claimed to be thinking of a certain song they have enjoyed when writing a new one. Longstreth simply decided to fixate and control his point of reference (and in turn to fixate us on it as well).
That being said, Rise Above, far from a cover record, is Dirty Projector's finest hour to date, a collection of disjointed pop songs fueled by virtuosity. Opener “What I See” begins in harmonic pleasantries, with female vocalists singing and Longstreth following suit, then without warning shredding into guttural chaos, only to return like a coming-of-spring in a Disney movie orchestration. As Longstreth sings “I can see the end” he latches on to a triumphant finale that rises gushing so fully that it's as if it took a songs worth of plucking and noodling to capture this moment.
Rise Above comes alive as “No More” bursts in with a bouncing, lightly plucked bass, steady drums and lyrical styling that's frenetic and rootless. With the album's premise in mind, his whimsical arrangements are the thumbing through of memory itself, with the minute turns of arpeggios and structural details doing the work of returning Longstreth (and us, perhaps) to that forgotten, imagined place in time.
Longstreth's signature style is almost a fidgeting at the guitar; insistently major, often willfully ignorant to tempo, it can be alternately meditative or obsessively compulsive. This fiddling about almost sounds subconscious, like he stumbled into his intricacies as he hoped to recall the next poignant lyric or uncompromising moment that Damaged once awarded him. “Six Pack” has a bright, quasi-punk urgency that works against the two-female croon of “I know it will be ok, I’ll get a six pack and be alright.” The song ultimately gives into that soft, lamenting escape of six beers, with its bizarre breakdown in which Longstreth and company sing in a soothing foreign language (Portuguese?), even while it completely contrasts the proletarian mentality of Black Flag lyrics to do so.
Longstreth should silence any complaints that his vision castrates the punk sensibilities rampant in Black Flag with “Police Story” and “Rise Above.” “Police Story” might be harpish and light, but Longstreth’s didactic lyrics, (sung even more harshly live), inspire a connection to their source as he croons “we're fighting a war we can't win” and “this fucking city is run by pigs.”
Through an album’s meander through Longstreth's brain matter, a 45-minute search for a foothold in Damaged, “Rise Above”, with its raucous declaration of transcendence, is transformed into an indie-reggae anthem. The Dirty Projectors turn what was once fast and loud into smoothed out reggae that's almost Ben Harper to Bob Marley as much as it's Longstreth to Rollins.
Surprisingly, there is one aspect of this incredible record I find distracting; the untitled track after what would have been a satisfying closer in “Rise Above.” The untitled track is a terrifying orchestration; two and a half minutes of silence followed by violins and chilly vocals that seem to challenge the worthiness of allowing an accessible anthem to be the album's final track. It's as though Longstreth doesn't want to leave on an empowering note, but instead to remind us of something malevolent lurking within his very personal mind-journey, ready to destroy our confidence in his imaginings.