Rise Above began as a happy accident: cleaning out his parents 'home, Dirty Projectors mastermind Dave Longstreth came across the empty cassette case for Black Flag's epochal debut album Damaged — "It was my jam," he's said, "probably the first music I ever got into" — and decided to rewrite the album, retaining only the lyrics. It's a radical makeover, with West African guitars, odd meters, chamber music interludes, transient noise-bursts, tastes of post-millennial r&b and dizzying female vocal arrangements that explode into plangent harmonic bombshells. Longstreth's singing — somewhere between an '80s soulman and a lost sheep — isn't for everyone, but so are most things worth a damn. Don't forget how utterly weird David Byrne sounded when Talking Heads '77 came out.
It's fitting that Rise Above was released on the anniversary of September 11th: right around then all the coolest bands began assiduously mining the post-punk era; underground music became staid and, understandably at the time, escapist. Back in the late '70s, Black Flag rebutted post-punk's arty excesses with blunt aggression, and in so doing made iconoclastic art-rock of their own. So it's also fitting that the Dirty Projectors used Damaged to make their masterpiece. Along with Deerhoof and a few other bands, the Dirty Projectors are finally, finally reinventing rock music.
Damaged wasn't only American hardcore's flagship album, but also a key tributary of grunge; Rise Above also seems to be a meditation on that genre, mocked these days because its original audience is still embarrassed by such aggressive candor. Rise Above revisits that place, and indeed, there was something there; recontextualized, Black Flag leader Greg Ginn's self-lacerating existential pain yields revelatory new facets.
The theme comes immediately: "What I See" boasts punk's most life-affirming lyric: "I want to live/ I wish I was dead," and enchanting female harmonies deconstruct that fateful couplet like a Philip Glass refrain. As with the entire album, the song heaves with vast dynamics and extraordinary musical events: a cataclysmic riff eruption from Hell's moshpit jump-cuts to Stravinskyesque woodwinds as Longstreth coos "And from the start I can see the end," an important foreshadowing.
"No More" opens with a contrapuntal violin duo that morphs into a full-band dub throb with plinking Zairean guitar, the verse lines punctuated by vocal harmonies so vast they're almost invisible — stark contrast to the lyrics 'crushing anomie. The twinkling guitar intro of "Depression" gives way to female harmonies like Andrews Sisters from Mars, its deep poignancy razed by a slamming power chorus. "Thirsty and Miserable" now comes off as a poignant, desperate chronicle of alcoholism, concise, vivid and unsparing; the song's interlude is virtuosic, a tense reverie at the heart of this remarkable album.
Ginn wrote "Police Story" about police harassment of hardcore shows in LA but the song resonates powerfully with New York's 2004 Republican convention, when the police flagrantly suppressed freedoms of speech and assembly. Longstreth makes it into a haunting ballad: "This fucking city is run by pigs," he shriek-croons, "They take away the rights/ from all the kids." The coda sounds just like vintage Police.
On "Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie," singers Amber Coffman and Susanna Waiche's exquisite hocketing provides some of the album's most potent psychic balm — aside from a very telling omission: The original version goes, "I've got problems of my own/ Not the kind that can't be solved/ with an atom bomb." Longstreth drops that last line, making the song a declaration of optimism, a light at the end of Black Flag's dark tunnel.
It all comes down to the closing, title track. Black Flag's "Rise Above" is a Neanderthal fist-pumper; Longstreth makes it into a minimalist gospel anthem, an inspiring statement of spiritual defiance, a direct invitation to transcendence. It sends chills up my spine every time. When Longstreth sings, "We are born with a chance/ I am going to have my chance," it completes an amazing journey foretold from the beginning of the album. Rise Above finds poignancy where there was scorn, reconciling ugliness and beauty. It makes the idea that you've outgrown Damaged — or at least the feelings it describes with such artless bravado — a bit of folly. Those feelings will always be there, and yet you can reinvent yourself too, make something new, and maybe even better, out of the broken old parts. I think they call that redemption.