This is some kind of alchemy, turning straight-shooting punk guitar riffs into quiet breaths of orchestration and shouted choruses into cooing two-part female harmonies.
This is crazy. There's no reason this should work. This borders genius. Black Flag's 1981 debut, Damaged, is a classic punk album in its own right, but what Dirty Projectors mastermind Dave Longstreth has done here is some kind of alchemy, turning straight-shooting punk guitar riffs into quiet breaths of orchestration and rapidly plucked guitar cascades, turning shouted choruses into two-part female harmonies and his own warbling voice, distilling normal bits of feedback into concentrated chugging blurts of white hot overdriven amp sludge. These aren't even really covers; rather than write new arrangements from those of the songs themselves, Longstreth composed from time-worn memory and his own revisionist creative impulses for feverish, mercurial mixes that play out like one of those dreams where familiar scenes from your life are replayed all wrong, with people getting sucked into tea kettles only to be replaced by herds of singing, dancing farm animals that read you your junk mail.
As such, appreciation of Rise Above demands little actual knowledge of or devotion to the original templates on the part of the listener (I only half recall Damaged myself; I'd only heard it in snatches anyway -- shhhh). Instead, this is more like a new stand-alone work quoting dramatically from rock history. Let's take that timeless tale of harassment by the Man, "Police Story", which displays some of the clearest recontexualized Black Flag lyrics. After the mournful flute-and-horn intro (sounding more like something from the classical arrangements of the entirely different last Dirty Projectors album, Don Henley rock opera The Getty Address), one of the album's clearest, catchiest three chord sequences (though probably not one from the original) bursts through, and Longstreth begins twisting out his words over soft-strummed accompaniment and cooing back-up. Somehow it sounds more personal and real than ever here, as Longstreth's voice catches and tears over "I tell them to go get fucked / they put me away". There are plenty of other always-relevant themes here besides the cops: being depressed, drinking, wanting to drink but you're almost out and the store's closed.
Let's go back and linger a little longer in wonder of Longstreth's voice, which imbues "depression is gonna kill me tonight" with combined urgency and elegance. This voice, completely unique in its warbling and ringing and leaping over and around itself, is the one true common thread across the full Dirty Projectors history. Longstreth's delivery owes something to the acrobatics of R&B, but he reinvents the specifics, as if working from a textbook description with no other fore-knowledge. In that way it's a perfect match to the album concept: reconstructed, approximate R&B in service of a reimagined punk rock. The rest of his vocal team, at the time Amber Coffman and Susanna Waiche, now Coffman and Angel Deradoorian (who also took over bass duties from Nat Baldwin), form the backbone of the songs, harmonizing in lovely swells or (on the fantastic stop-start time-changing "Gimme Gimme Gimme") interlocking together in tight syncopation like a minimalist classical choir.
I feel that, in describing what Dirty Projectors has done, I still haven't adequately described what they currently sound like. The guiding principles here seem to have been dynamics and progression. The songs move constantly on, rarely staying still, though they always make sure to linger and catch their breaths between the climactic crashes surging up throughout. Guitar and bass are still here to carry most melodies, but they dart in and out, guitar lines emerging in precision finger-plucking that seems appropriated from bluegrass while the bass hangs back, only appearing in full to accent key moments with fat, pendulous notes. Over this, all of the aforementioned vocal interplays, backup running right on top of Longstreth as often as they support him, and drummer Brian McOmber keeping up with all the changes to patch in a glimmer of high hats or a full gallop of kicks and snares. The songs only flirt with standard rock conceits, but when they hit -- in the series of bass chugging noise interludes marking off the progress of "Thirsty and Miserable", or the feedback squeal neatly dividing "What I See", or the grinding menace of monolithic guitar that finally seems to be claiming its full place in "Room 13" -- it's devastating.
Dave Longstreth's vision has always been determined and unique; it has never been this clear or viscerally exciting. He may have stripped punk of its sustained intensity, but its passion burns through, at turns finely wrought, and warmly human, and growlingly insatiable. Rise Above is not an album for people nostalgic for old Black Flag (indeed, some may be put off, though Longstreth seems to consider this to be an homage to a favorite of his adolesence) but much more broadly for people seeking a fresh voice and creative vitality. Past Dirty Projectors albums have threatened this sort of wide appeal, but were too insular, too scratchy and misshapen (however endearingly) to really take flight, where Rise Above stands good chance of catching ears that might previously have drifted by without pause. Perhaps this is why the core live band seems, finally, to have solidified into a consistent line-up with no sign of changing anytime soon: this is the best Dirty Projectors has sounded up to now, and they've got a lot of mileage yet.