Damaged goods

Dirty Projectors reimagine Black Flag, realize their potential
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  August 15, 2007
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WRAPPED IN MEMORY: Dirty Projectors.

Dirty Projectors | with Vampire Weekend + YACHT | at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | 9:30 pm August 23 | $8 | 207.828.5600
This isn’t the first concept album from Dirty Projectors — 2005’s The Getty Address is an opera about post-9/11 America — and I’d be surprised if it were the last. Through four albums and a few EPs over the past five years, lead songwriter David Longstreth has often come off as an art-school “visionary:” His voice is a flailing yodel, and he writes disjointed songs that hint at catchiness and then indulge in long spells of abstract wankery (think a less precious Deerhoof, or a grittier Fiery Furnaces). The concept album is a road-tested manner of justifying the erratic ideas of an audacious musician like Longstreth under a theoretical umbrella, and that hint of definition — that every sudden movement just might have some relevance — suits his elusive, sometimes pretentious, tactics perfectly.

With Rise Above (Dead Oceans, to be released September 11), Longstreth capitalizes on the fact that his latest premise couldn’t possibly succeed. Longstreth set out to recreate — from memory — Black Flag’s 1981 album Damaged, the definitive work of California hardcore’s first wave, which he hadn’t heard since middle school. A quick look at the track list — missing a handful of songs, completely out of order — indicates that he wasn’t at all bound to the notion that he’d get it right. Rise Above isn’t a covers album so much as an attempt to reclaim the experience of hearing a transformative piece of art for the first time.

On these terms, the album capitalizes on all of Dirty Projectors’ normally difficult tendencies. Opener “What I See” is a three-and-a-half minute mini-suite of four movements, by turns tropical and chaotic, centered on the tumultuous refrain “I want to live/I wish I was dead.” Amber Coffman and Susanna Waiche’s looped, doo-woppy backing vocals are a straight-faced anchor to Longstreth’s untrained, melodramatic R&B falsetto, and the fanciful calling of a flute reveals the song’s humor and theatricality. Similarly, the “Police Story” run-in with the fuzz is both absurd and genuine in portraying exaggerated teenage rebellion; the meta-commentary works because it’s tethered to such a blunt and relatable message.

The band don’t rely on such dualities to pack a punch, though. Nat Baldwin’s elongated upright bass notes and Brian McComber’s slurping hi-hat work on “No More” create a giddy calm-before-the-storm that paves the way for Longstreth’s spry guitar licks, and the thundering chorus of “Depression” rests on a tantalizing precipice between maximum tension and catharsis. Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor produced the album, and he maintains his band’s trademark lushness while giving the DPs a sound that’s nimble enough to sound both frantic and gorgeous. He transforms Longstreth’s project into an act of instinct and organic rediscovery.

This is best evidenced in Rise Above’s title track, which coasts on a rich reggae groove for three minutes and then slows to a crawl. The drums and vocals bow out, leaving Longstreth’s guitar to find its way to the end of the song. That fails too, and three seconds of silence pervade until the bridge comes to him: “We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us but it’s no use.” Message and memory congeal in an instance of unadulterated remembrance, as though that moment — for band and audience — were what this whole experience was all about.

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