Review Summary: Utterly engrossing album of Black Flag re-imaginings that are neither punk nor pop.
Black Flag--one of the most highly regarded punk bands of all time--unleashed their classic magnum opus Damaged almost 26 years ago as of this writing. David Longstreth--one of the most creative minds in the indie scene today--released his debut The Graceful Fallen Mango five years ago as of this writing. Keeping this large difference in mind, the latest offering from Longstreth (as Dirty Projectors) is the amazing Rise Above. Not cover versions, but rather rewrites and revisions of Damaged, the album stuns and amazes with every twist and turn through the original's lyrics crammed into classical crevices and angry biting guitars swapped out for tightly interlocking bursts of clean electric and acoustic guitars (as played by Dave and singer/guitarist Amber Coffman). Heavy if not simplistic bass lines give way to complex basses, mastered here on electric and stand up by Nat Baldwin. And most surprisingly of all, Henry Rollins has been replaced by the gentle croon and yelp of Longstreth, the interlocking sweetness of Coffman and Susanna Waiche's dual harmonies, and a smattering of overdubs. Now, this may sound like career suicide to some...but D-Lo (as he abbreviates his name) manages to parlay his image of a classic into something that will last as long as the original material.
Immediately noticeable is the tracklist. Gone are both Damaged songs, Life of Pain, Padded Cell, and TV Party--and the remaining tracks have been shuffled into oblivion. D-Lo admitted he remembered TV Party but chose to omit it for his own various reasons, as well as admitting anger at forgetting some songs. So, kicking things off with a flourish of guitar and female voices is What I See. Sixteenth note runs on the harmonious parts for women give way to a recognizable line: "I wanna live/I wanna live/I wanna live/I was dead," they say without morose tones. Rather than being a bark of, "I wanna live! I wish I was DEAD!" we are greeted by a cheery emphasis on living, only to be ushered in by Dave's voice phrasing the same lyrics in a simple yet effective pattern. When the song breaks to just voices, the mood changes to something melancholy. "This feeling haunts me/Behind these eyes, the shell seems so empty/Does anything live inside?" he sings in syncopated notes, in perfect unison with electric bass. Short lived? Yes. But the brilliance of rising tones lifting the singular utterance of "Oh" over and over brings back the original calm sunshine of the song. Only by the end when multi-tracked voices invade does the song seem like something in relation to the original song's dense distortion. No More opens with violins that melt away to reveal a song of abstractions that fit the lyrics oddly well. Early highlight Depression allows drummer Brian McOmber to freak out as those syncopations come back (it's impossible to try and follow the female parts and still be on a beat). Longstreth's half-shouts of impassioned singing make the simple chorus of, "Depression/Depression/Depression's gonna kill me tonight," into a grand look into the upside of being down.
Songs about liquor (aka Six Pack and Thirsty and Miserable) finish the peak of the first half of the album. Six Pack has Longstreth adopting an odd half-grunt singing style first adapted on Two Sheep Asleep on the New Attitude EP and even features a bridge sung entirely in Esperanto (although that section actually uses Run-DMC lyrics). Thirsty and Miserable starts off low-key and brooding as Dave croons, "Oh.../My brother wants a ride/To/The liquor sto-/ooore," but before long with shouts of, "More! MOOOOOOORRREEE!!!" harmonized with Coffman and Waiche form a tapestry for an extended wall of distorted, detuned guitars and some experimental noodling. Uplifting trios of Longstreth then create a wordless bridge of "Ah"s and several notes in the alto range, before bringing the song back to its modest starts. Police Story is another grand track that gives some humor as screeches of "for," "stand," and "time" sound out of place and violent next to flutes, acoustic guitars, and more female harmonies. Somehow, though, Police Story only adds to the peak of the album as the aggressive vocals bring a different level and type of anger more against the concept of police than their philosophy (as Black Flag protested against). Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie bounces along with crashing drums and a buoyant melody only to stop dead in its tracks for a devilishly complex female part relying on traded and shared notes that stands as one of the most complex parts to appear in a rock song that wasn't written by a prog act, Captain Beefheart, or Frank Zappa. Almost in defiance of this section, the song ends with a simple guitar figure that transforms into a short, rushed section of discord.
Spray Paint (The Walls) is similar to Thirsty and Miserable, inasmuch as it has a laid back main melody, then crashing thunder from drums and full band, and more alto parts sung by Longstreth. Despite this glazing over, the song is one of the best on the disc yet again because of its complete energy and brooding power. Room 13 stays in mellow mode as the female voices coo under Dave's most heartfelt vocals, tear jerkingly gorgeous as they sing, "I need to belong/I need to hold on," in a way more beautiful than anything on their previous two efforts. Closing title track, Rise Above, is the most straightforward rock song, complete with a chorus of, "We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us/But it's no use," and a false ending. Simply stunning and powerful, Rise Above (the song) brings back the joie de vivre of What I See as well as the awareness and introspective nature of songs like Depression in one package. The unlisted bonus track is the only valley here. Two minutes or so of silence, then low held strings and some outtakes from Coffman and Waiche and a few seconds of the Rise Above drum beat add on an extraneous ending to the album.
While this offering may not be for everybody, for those who enjoy their music original and engrossing whilst existing in more than three genres at once, this is your album. All the lyrics on Damaged get a new level of emotion and are somehow made into something that everybody can relate to on multiple levels. Rise Above is simply one of the best albums of 2007, one of the best Dirty Projectors offerings to date, and probably one of the best albums of the '00s.