Dirty Projectors - Rise Above
Dave Longstreth is completely insane. Fortunately, both for him and for us, he’s also a maverick genius. His constantly shifting ensemble, Dirty Projectors, are the most unhinged and viscerally exciting live act I’ve seen this year, and ‘Rise Above’ is an utterly magnificent record. It’s supposedly a reinterpretation of Black Flag’s ‘Damaged’, constructed entirely from memory as Longstreth was left with the inlay but not the cassette of his original copy of the album. My knowledge of Black Flag is fairly limited, so this won’t be the most contextualised review I’ve ever written but I’m pretty sure the result sounds absolutely nothing like Black Flag. It is, however, the most strikingly original concoction to have emerged from the American rock underground in some time. It is clearly more about the inspiration and sensations Longstreth derived from Black Flag in his youth, than about the specific sound and arrangements of those songs.
Longstreth clearly has no reservations about adopting a ‘pick and mix’ approach to music, grabbing liberally from an open-minded range of genres. Oddly, the result is the most accessible Dirty Projectors record to date but that certainly doesn’t make it conventional or predictable. Longstreth veers off on any unexpected tangent that takes his interest – the rhythms are fragmented and changeable, the arrangements multi-faceted and compelling, particularly on this occasion in the use of vocal harmonies. His own rather anguished vocals might be an acquired taste, but they are softened by his sweet-sounding female counterparts.
The songs often begin in deceptively safe territory – perhaps with the strum of an acoustic guitar or with a clearly stated melody. There’s simply no guessing where they will end up though, or what route they will take to get there. Who could predict the sudden lurch into reggae that takes place mid-way through ‘Police Story’ or the switch between propulsive afrobeat grooves and some sort of contemporary wind and string arrangements that characterise ‘No More’ and ‘Depression’.
Even the most straightforward moments have real oddities when the veneer is scratched away. The title track begins with a Neil Young-esque trudge and is probably the closest Longstreth will get to being immediately infectious. Yet the melody, pleasing on the ear as it is, is considerably more exotic than anything Young might have penned, and perhaps derives more from roots reggae – Culture or Burning Spear may well have been on the Longstreth playlist at some point.
Longstreth’s music is consistently playful and stimulating, but there’s also the sense that he is striving for something powerful, contemporary and significant. My knowledge of Black Flag is not great enough to confirm whether the lyrics here are taken from the source material, but plenty of these songs apply neatly to current geo-political tensions, from the assertion that ‘we’re fighting a war we can’t win, they hate us, we hate them’ to the title track’s frustration with abuse and manipulation. It’s not exactly the most nuanced poetry you’ll ever hear, but it does have a brutal impact to match Longstreth’s dazzling sonorities.
‘Rise Above’ is an album as brilliantly unfathomable and disorientating as life itself. Yet it has its own peculiar internal logic – much of its invention sounds precise and mathematical, yet there’s a looseness and vigour in the playing that defies classification. It transcends just about everything.