There was a time when rock music actually rocked. Yes, kids, I know this may come as a shock to you, what with your discriminating between the effete Euro-folk of Peter, Bjorn and John and the milquetoast grandeur of Sufjan Stevens. But trust me: At one time it was considered obligatory — nay, imperative — that a rock band slobber all over its extra-amplified instruments as loudly and forcefully as it could. Somewhere along the line, though — let’s say ’round about the 1980s — this fell out of vogue with the hip elite. The austere administrators of the post-punk re-education (which still largely informs independent rock) weren’t too keen on the overtones of misogynist aggression in rock’s peremptory command of “rock out with your cock out.” So now we have the present indie-rock paradigm, where the whimsical and mellow can replace the implausibly macho, warm fuzzies can replace the fuzz guitar.
No, this isn’t a universal shift, or even a bad one. But hip rock’s current acceptance of more pastel tones makes Rise Above, the Dirty Projectors’ ethereal, free-form cover (more a “translation,” really) of Black Flag’s 1981 debut, Damaged, one of the most violent rock albums of all time, even more illuminating. We can only guess what the thick-elbowed frequenters of the early hardcore scene would’ve thought of the Projectors’ pseudo-jazzy take on their sacred text, but in our slackier zeitgeist, the re-contextualization of Rollins and company’s righteous hostility is fascinating.
David Longstreth, the Brooklyn-based one-man wiz behind the Projectors, claims to have re-created Rise Above solely from memory of the original album, and whether or not he checked his lyrics sheet is beside the point; it’s plausible that even someone familiar with Damaged could listen to Rise Above and not realize what the source material was. The track list is completely switched, the songs constantly shift tempo, and the chords, as such, are more a palette on which Longstreth splatters Pollock-esque blots of stammering vocals and twisting guitars. The comparison is apt: Rise Above resembles Black Flag’s music in the way that a Pollock painting resembles a bowl of fruit — the palpable feeling of anger and frustration and energy manifests itself through abstract musical tension rather than aggressive playing.
Who would’ve imagined “Police Story” as a dour medieval dirge, screeched out over acoustic guitar and stringy flutes? “Depression” as jilted Afro-beat? It’s to Longstreth’s credit that in his hands Rollins’s frequently juvenile lyrics occasionally take on a poignant, melancholy dimension — when “What I See,” for example, stops midway and Longstreth hums in a near-whisper, “I want to live/ I want to live/ I wish I was dead.” At other times the lyrics strike a more discordant, unintentionally humorous tone with the airy music, especially on the timeless adolescent outrage of “Police Story”: “This fucking city is run by pigs/ they take away the right from all the kids.”
But the lyrics are really the only way to match each song to its source. Rise Above is deliberately challenging and obtuse; its ceaseless changes and refusal to settle are its most important similarities to Damaged‘s abrasive and exhaustive loudness. Translating Black Flag’s anti-intellectual screed into arty free-jazz concept is one thing. That it actually merits repeat listens is another altogether.