by: Kyle Olson
There are certainly albums from one’s formative years that, no matter how long it’s been since listened to, can be put on and sung along with word for word. These are the kinds of albums our youthful selves listened to daily. Though, if asked to sing the album, a capella, without the source material as a guide, it would be tremendously difficult for anyone to perform the same extreme karaoke feat. Words will most assuredly be forgotten, and melodies will be vague and elusive. This is, of course, for those of us who have relatively “normal” minds and memories. Now imagine that exploit being performed by the mind of Dave Longstreth, a musician who’s last full-length was a fractured freak-folk glitch-rock opera about Don Henley fighting with and alongside kangaroos and giant insects in an epic adventure inspired by Aztec mythology. Such a challenge is the creative impetus behind the Dirty Projectors’ most recent full-length project, Rise Above: an attempt to re-record Black Flag’s Damaged from memory.
And it is a complete success… except for the flute solos, choir vocals, string sections, brief forays into Latin, jaw-dropping musicianship, double to quadruple track lengths, and 100% less “dudes with necks that you could break a 2x4 over”. Sorry Rollins.
Rise Above clearly takes some artistic liberties. While there is a certain charm in thinking Longstreth is batshit-crazy enough to think “No More” actually started with a string quartet before a frantic and soft finger-picked guitar hit the mix, one should probably consider the album to be some sort of bizarro-world tribute album. Dirty Projectors have long been a band who put out music that sounds like absolutely nothing else, so the idea of their covering anything guarantees that the source material will be seen through the most skewed of lenses. Attempting to squeeze their expansive and myriad sound into Black Flag’s three-chord assaults of early hardcore results in a freakish backlash of reeling vocals and exploratory musical passages, with occasional freakouts that barely hint at what the original actually sounded like. And the vocals are almost always what one notices first when initially sampling the Dirty P’s.
Longstreth’s voice is a Frankenstein amalgam of David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Jamie Stewart, Devendra Banhart, and Björk. He possesses a glorious set of pipes that jump around the scale with a melody-averse crystal clearness. His singing is beautiful and strong, but he has no problem using it to make noise and refuses to be pinned down to one spot. Much like the rest of the music, it possesses a restless overabundance of energy that prevents anything from remaining static. Additionally, Longstreth has enlisted the help of some female backing vocals that weave in and around his vocal lines to create both startling beautiful harmonies and glorious backdrops. The ladies’ vocal interplay on “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” is one of the albums highlights as a chorus of angelic “ah”s bounce back and forth in stereo panning over ringing guitar chimes and Longstreth’s lyrical interpretation.
As adventurous as this album is, instrumentally, it’s actually stripped down since the last album, The Getty Address. The lack of electronic manipulation makes for an album that feels more organic and raw than its predecessor. Still present, thankfully, is Longstreth’s proclivity for intricately fingerpicked guitar that finds rhythms unheard in 99.9% of music. In some Dirty Projectors songs, the guitar (or vocals, or drums) will start playing a rhythm, and the listener’s lifetime of standard 4/4 western musical tradition registers it as aberrant and out-of-sync. But, as the line progresses, the rhythm and melody takes shape and they realize they’re simply ten seconds behind what Longstreth is doing. All I’m trying to say is that he lives in the future and MAY be capable of time travel. Just throwing that out there.
For all of its possible pretension, Rise Above is easily one of the most interesting albums to be released in 2007. What solidifies it as a contender for year-end best-of lists is not only its adventurous spirit and originality, but its amazing listenability for all of its weirdness. Dirty Projectors have taken a classic hardcore album and, without losing all of the aggression and noise, has turned it into a sprawling, unusual, often beautiful piece of music. Much like Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album Ys, Rise Above exists in its own sonic space. It isn’t so senselessly outlandish that it can’t be reached, but it most certainly takes a bit of effort to get there. As Dirty Projectors take Rise Above’s title track, changing it from a fiery protest tune into a spiritual song of uplifting and hopeful calm, any “work” the listener put into the album becomes intensely rewarding.