On the surface, its concept bordered on kitsch: a Yale-educated Brooklyn indie rocker was writing an album of “re-imagined” songs from Black Flag’s 1981 debut Damaged, having adored it as a nine-year-old but not listened to it in 15 years. The musician in question, Dave Longstreth, had previously released four albums and an EP of increasingly heady material under the moniker Dirty Projectors. Essentially, these were solo efforts, but Longstreth had recently linked up, both romantically and professionally, with vocalist Amber Coffman, and a solidified line-up had begun to coalesce around his dense center of gravity. Like Greg Ginn, Longstreth was known as an extremely disciplined (and often demanding) bandleader, whose musical influences sprawled far beyond the genres with which they were associated. If anyone found it surprising that an act more closely associated with cuddly-sounding experimental outfits Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear planned to tackle the hardcore punk canon, it was likely because they weren’t very familiar with the enigma that was Longstreth himself. And after the release of the resulting LP, Rise Above, it would become harder and harder to deny the eccentric songwriter his painstaking stabs at genius.
While it is true that the album’s follow-up, 2009’s Bitte Orca, truly cemented Dirty Projectors’ status as critical darlings and Pitchfork Festival mainstays, it was Rise Above that propelled the band (for all intents and purposes, a newly-minted unit) in the direction it would take over the next decade. This was most keenly felt in the hocketed vocal harmonies of Coffman and Susanna Waiche (who left the band during the extensive tour that followed the record’s release; her vacancy was filled for five years by Angel Deradoorian). Precise, expressive, and even at times otherworldly, the female vocals provided an important, feather-light counterweight to Longstreth’s bursts of spidery guitar and braying intonations. They sang Black Flag’s battle-cry lines — like “We are tired of your abuse” and “Gimmie some more, don’t ask what for” — with a complex, curdled sweetness, in a way that felt less ironic than a direct statement of feminine revolution. And in that way, Dirty Projectors captured the essence of Damaged without having to rehash each specific note; Henry Rollins’ explosive fury had been distilled down to the aural equivalent of a chilling death glare.
Rise Above, which turns 10 today, was recorded in less than a week. It was Longstreth’s goal to let it come together as a live document his band could tour behind as well as a testament to the hustle that only New York City could inspire. Its angularity, its complexity, its harshness, and its sudden swells of chaos all reflect that. Longstreth is often compared to David Byrne (and would go on to work with him on Red Hot’s 2008 Dark Was The Night compilation), in part for their mutual appreciation (or appropriation, depending on how you look at it) of African polyrhythms; this trend toward borrowing bright, tribal textures was very of-the-moment in the Brooklyn scene, borne out famously by DP tourmates Vampire Weekend. In that way, Rise Above plays like a grainy Polaroid snapshot of the ideas swirling around in that fruitful time, the impromptu jam sessions at now-defunct Williamsburg venue Zebulon, the almost self-congratulatory embrace of experimentation via multi-culturalism.
But Rise Above’s content is also political, and no amount of R&B-indebted melisma can divorce the songs from that fact. In 2017, when the national dialogue about police brutality has come once again to a fevered pitch, it’s rather startling to hear a white guy with an Ivy-league degree follow his own florid flute arrangement with a wailing complaint of: “This fucking city is run by pigs!” Longstreth turned Black Flag’s “Police Story” into something more like a twisted fairy tale, with somber harmonic coos and delicately strummed chords, which can feel a little crass. The album’s title track, though, is as rousing as its imperative suggests, whether in the hands of punks shunned by society, or as a backhanded response by Longstreth to indie-devoted detractors who dismissed his work as too brainy and overwrought. Coffman’s vocals are never more beautiful than in its closing bars, predicting the soaring heights the band would reach with Bitte Orca and 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan.
And now, 10 years later, Dirty Projectors is a solo project once again, the dissolution of the romantic relationship between Longstreth and Coffman effectively ending an era for the band. Not since Rumours has a more excoriating breakup-as-art album been written than this year’s self-titled Dirty Projectors, an amalgam of anthemic overshares, awkwardly specific memories, and truly vicious barbs (in particular, a line from “Keep Your Name” states “What I want from art is truth/ What you want is fame”) littered with embittered samples of the band’s back catalogue. By its end, Longstreth’s anger mellows and wistful acceptance shines through, a distant echo of the steely reserve once heard on “Rise Above,” or the oddly joyous “Depression,” but coming here from a broken heart on the mend rather than a lonely creator wounded by restrictive culture. The album is a towering monument to moving on; couching that searing exasperation in dense and delicate layers, sometimes dissonant and sometimes tender, is something Longstreth no doubt learned in the process of making Rise Above. At this point, Longstreth’s made an entire career out of channeling sourness through eloquence, expressed in the upper reaches of his wonky pitch and skittering guitar.
When Longstreth returned to Brooklyn last summer to perform the new material live for the first time at Northside Festival, he was accompanied by a ring of percussionists, horn players, and ghosts from Dirty Projectors’ past, like Tyondai Braxton, Nat Baldwin, and Olga Bell, all protectively closing in on his spasmodic dance moves and writhing solos. He had come a long way from covering Black Flag, but as he played through the entire self-titled record, it became clear that he’d taken the ensuing decade to learn how to reimagine himself. Rise Above forged and focused Dirty Projectors’ most successful iteration, but most importantly, it gave Dave Longstreth a roadmap for transformative change.