It doesn’t seem quite right to call Rise Above a covers album. Though Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth was inspired to recreate Black Flag’s Damaged from memory after finding an empty cassette case in his parents’ home, the album itself bears no resemblance to the original, avoiding any faithfulness or reverence one might have in recreating their heroes’ art. This sort of bizarre inspiration gone awry is standard practice for The Dirty Projectors, however, who in 2005 released The Getty Address, a concept album with the Eagles’ Don Henley as its central protagonist, with mangled Eagles lyrics tossed in for effect. This is how Longstreth operates.
The Dirty Projectors are a pretty dense band to comprehend as it is, their odd time signatures, erratic yelps, orchestral beauty and prog-rock grandeur making for something not quite freak-folk, not quite orch-pop, and nowhere near anything else. That said, hearing them take on a classic that got many an angst ridden teen through his half-pipe youth takes an open mind, and one not too hung up on history. While Rise Above certainly pulls from Damaged‘s lyric sheet, while sustaining the album’s frothing angst and ill ease, the sonic similarities between the two are nonexistent. Longstreth croons where Rollins shouted; Dirty Projectors float and spindle where Black Flag lunged for the jugular.
From the opening notes of “What I See,” with its calypso groove and oddly syncopated female vocals repeating the lines “I want to live…I wish I was dead,” The Dirty Projectors open the listener up to their swirling sound circus where nothing is familiar, but all is quite intriguing. The strings that open “No More” are quite lovely, as are the densely layered voices, punctuated by muted plucks of guitar. With “Depression” comes the closest thing to a standard punk rock song, surges of distorted guitar crashing down with intensity and urgency as Longstreth sweetly sings “depression’s gonna kill me” and gorgeous flutes billow in the background. There’s a bit of hillbilly stomp to “Six Pack,” albeit with a dizzying rhythmic syncopation, while “Police Story,” one of the quietest on the album, is offset by Longstreth’s blood-curdling screams.
As this album is a re-imagination of Damaged, it’s out of order and contains fewer tracks, including “TV Party,” sadly, but at its core, this is a set of Dirty Projectors originals. Rise Above has its source material in Black Flag’s classic work of teenage anger and snot, but this is a much more elegant and bizarre album, one that’s far too complex to listen to while skating away from the cops. It requires careful attention and a patient ear, but these songs will come to be recognized as their own strange and beautiful creations.
MP3: “No More”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.