Review Summary: Effeminate hipsters cover legendary testosterone-fueled hardcore album and it actually works.
The Dirty Projectors - Rise Above
So apparently I was wrong to hate. When I first heard that some indie band was covering Black Flag's legendary album, Rise Above
, I dismissed it as a truly unfortunate, laughable combination. I never really liked Black Flag, and to have some pitchfork darlings give their take of a stripped down, aggressive hardcore album couldn't have helped the cause too much. I imagined this album as a tepid reworking of the songs chord progressions but with accordions and ukeleles or something pompous like that. But when, two months later, a friend hooked me up with The Dirty Projectors' Rise Above
on a recommendation, I was massively surprised. The way the Dirty Projectors, led by "musical director," Dave Longstreth, took to the album was in a way I didn't expect at all. This is not a cover album. It's not a parody. It's not a tribute. All the Dirty Projectors did was strip down the songs to their bare essentials as hardcore songs - they extracted the lyrics and the melodies - and then create lush orchestration around those original found materials. Yes, this is "bastardized pop" as so much other popular indie music is (Xiu Xiu, Girl Talk, Deerhoof, etc.), but this album stands out above other typical hipster fare. The lyrics, which were originally shouted have now been rendered in fairly bombastic male lead vocals, with tripled female accompanying vocals. The guitar, which was previously grating and distorted, are now all clean-tone and trebly. They sound bright. The bass and drums, which previously acted as a way to fuel the naked aggression of hardcore, is now a way to accent the offbeat, midtempo rhythms. This album is not just a reworking, it's a complete reinterpretation, and even then, it's not Black Flag's original message that they're reinterpreting; The Dirty Projectors are creating an entirely new album out of shreds from a classic album.
Getting over my initial surprise at liking Rise Above
though, some gripes started to peek out of the cracks of this album. The vocals, while refreshing considering I usually listen to hardcore and am used to the kind of harsh shouting found on the original album, ultimately cloy by the third listen. While I'm definitely a fan of the trio of female backup singers and Longstreth's quiet singing on the slower tracks like "Police Story" and his emotive singing on the amazing "Rise Above," the vocals are often very goofy, acting as more of a distraction than an essential part of the songwriting. His wails and whelps really just do very little for the music. My other main complaint is that the music can get too circus-like at times. I appreciate the Zappa-esque variety and absurdity to some of the arrangements, but on some tracks the variety of tones and guitar lines can become slapstick. For example, the faux-blues of "Six Pack" does not mix well with the female vocals and sounds like a skinny jeans version of Bruce Springsteen more than anything else. My last main complaint about this album is that it's god dam
ned pretentious and pompous. It takes some moxie to redo a classic album in any regard (which I actually like about this album), but the Dirty Projectors take that confidence to extreme points. Do I really need a minimalist version of "Room 13?" Probably not. Do I need the vocal trio singing fast unison melodies throughout "What I See?" Is it really all that artistic to compose a violin duet to introduce "No More?" No, not really, but that's just part of the bombastic world of The Dirty Projectors.
And now that I have gotten over both my initial surprise with this album's awesomeness and my disillusionment with this album's faults, I'm actually really content with it all. The arrangements, though sometimes clown-like, are definitely complex and wonderful for most of the album. Though at this point, arpeggio is a pretty played out guitar technique, Longstreth has reinvented it for me. Most of this success is rooted in the fact that the harmonic progressions on this album are awesomely original, but the arpeggios are also nice within themselves, as Longstreth tosses in nice little sweeps and hammers instead of just playing them all legato. The vocal performances, while also goofy at times, are the characteristic instruments of this album. The female vocals are very memorable and help render these ex-hardcore songs in their new, quieter modes. I guess the delicate female touch works wonders here. Ultimately, I get the sense that this album is a great one. Maybe it doesn't have the relevance as the original album, and doesn't quite live up to the legacy, but it is intelligently composed and often moving. At times the Dirty Projectors are pretentious and overconfident in their abilities, but that attitude also helps them breathe new, complex life into songs that are (relatively) mundane and breakneck. Oh ya, and "Rise Above" is one of the best songs I've heard in a long long time. I recommend this album to hipsters and tough guys alike.