Supposedly David Longstreth was on tour with the Dirty Projectors, the indie rock band he's been fronting since 2002, when he found himself thinking a great deal about Black Flag's epochal 1981 debut album, Damaged. Given the many miles Black Flag racked up criss-crossing America during their bloody heyday, that shouldn't be at all surprising, but rather than picking up a new copy of the album and cranking it up in celebration of his fellow road warriors, Longstreth channeled his thoughts in a different direction -- after coming home from the tour, he took the Dirty Projectors into a studio and covered 11 of Damaged's 15 tracks, all without giving himself or his musicians a refresher course on what they sounded like. The result, Rise Above, reimagines Black Flag's ragged hymns of rage and angst into smart but fractured bursts of wiry guitar (imagine King Sunny Ade after ten cups of coffee) accompanied by breathy, ethereal vocals, occasional interjections of strings and woodwinds, and a precise but flexible rhythm section. While these interpretations stray a considerable distance from Black Flag's originals, what's most surprising is how much of the original frameworks of these songs remain -- the melodies, such as they are, can generally still be recognized, and if the pissed-off howl of Henry Rollins is the polar opposite of Longstreth's vocal style, the contrary message of the songs somehow shines through. On one hand, Rise Above could be used as an example of how Longstreth can take nearly any music and make it his own, but at the same time it doesn't sound like he's forgotten the original intent behind this music for an instant. Damaged was a scream of defiance in the face of a grim and unforgiving world, but on Rise Above the Dirty Projectors use the curious beauty of their music as a protest against the ugliness of a violent and corrupt society. Perhaps even more than Henry Rollins, when David Longstreth sings "we're fighting a war that we can't win" in "Police Story," he wants more than anything to make a world where that isn't the truth, and it's moments like this that make Rise Above a brave and ultimately successful experiment.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming