Since punk came along, the cover song has been a frequent expression of disparagement toward mainstream culture. The early template involved stringing up perishable pop goods and eviscerating them with a shotgun blast, as the Circle Jerks did on "Golden Shower of Hits (Jerks on 45)."
A medley, the Jerks' number tied mangled takes on The Carpenters ("Close to You"), Starland Vocal Band ("Afternoon Delight"), Paul Anka ("She's Having My Baby") and Captain & Tennille ("Love Will Keep Us Together") into one heap. Dinosaur Jr. afforded Peter Frampton's "Show Me the Way" a lot less respect than it did with The Cure's "Just Like Heaven."
But punk lives in shopping malls these days, so it's hardly in a position to rebuke pop culture too much (see The Ataris hit with "The Boys of Summer"). So what does it mean when the new underground takes on the old underground that has now become part of the mainstream social register? More specifically, when a young, artful indie rock band in 2007 covers a seminal hardcore album, Black Flag' Damaged, 25 years after its release—from memory? That's what The Dirty Projectors do on Rise Above, frontman Dave Longstreth's take on Damaged. Songs are out of order; five songs are missing; entire chunks of lyrics get swapped for Longstreth's own. Is such an interpretation capable of new light?
It's important to remember the way Damaged opens. The first barbs of "Rise Above" are succinct ethos-expressions via Henry Rollins' thundering windpipe: "Think they're smart/ Can't think for themselves," he bellows, offering a critique that, within a couple years of the album's 1981 release, could apply to pop and punk in equal measure. The band's alienation and self-imposed societal exile echo a paranoid revolutionary (reactionary?) tone: "We are tired of your abuse/ Try to stop us it's no use." It's a separatist manifesto, aggressive and dirty and agitated.
In covering the album, Dirty Projectors strip away the menace, offering lounge-ish musical beds that brightly color the misanthropic hue. Longstreth employs strings as well as arch, doo-wop female backing vocals, steering the music back toward the more pop-oriented urinal on which the Circle Jerks delivered their aforementioned piss take. Hardcore's original enemies—melody and languid pacing as epitomized by the easy-listening pop treacle of the '70s—return in regalia throughout Longstreth's liberty-taking reinterpretation. But by inverting the implied emotional tonality—swathing ugly screeds in pretty (and sometimes chaotic) arrangements—Longstreth attempts to communicate a deeper lyrical truth. Aztec Camera slowed Van Halen's "Jump" down and lifted the lonely, lovelorn acoustic ballad lurking inside David Lee Roth's salacious come-on. Here, Longstreth tries to give Rollins' rage a new setting, one that flips between easy melodies and fierce mayhem. In part, he succeeds.
During "What I See," the track he selects for the start, Longstreth's croon pulls and stretches the lines like taffy. His voice tumbles headlong down the words, like a drunk on a narrow staircase. Shrouded with drifting, elegiac backing, he sounds like a mental cripple led to his seat by a pair of ministering angels, whose gentle, dulcet vocals console his own tortured warble. Longstreth renovates Rollins' tormented swagger for human feet, the outraged invective becoming a cipher for ache and confusion, robbed now of its anger. Longstreth pleas "I want to live," the lines limping and wobbling into a cacophonous mid-song break. It rebuilds into an exultant, full-flesh anthem.
"No More" (stuck in the middle of side two on Damaged; in the two-spot on Rise Above) opens with trilling violins before giving way to propulsive bass and percolating guitar arpeggios, reinforcing the theme. Bells tinkle. Angelic female vocals soar. And Longstreth moans like Michael Bolton in a torture chamber. Album highlight "Depression" bridges the baroque aesthetic with a churning rock pulse, as Longstreth's birdlike tenor flutters all about, hoping to escape the song's titular darkness.
Such a combination of shimmering arrangements and gloomy lyrics have served singers from Brian Wilson to Joe Pernice well, and Longstreth's off-kilter and intermittently throttling rock undercurrent grounds the two in a common space somewhere between pretty and disturbing. While intriguing, it can be genuinely disconcerting, too. When crosscurrent bursts of percussion, noise or just over-exuberant rock bump against string-and-harmonies delicacy, it's a bit like motion sickness. This unsettling juxtaposition is particularly prevalent on "Six Pack," where piercing choral females laud their hops-based salvation over jagged post-rock angularity. It sounds like Fugazi's backwards-cap-wearing evil twin leading the Mormon Tabernacle choir through "Gloria in Excelsis Deo."
Like "Six Pack," Longstreth's poppy stylistic choices on "Gimme Gimme Gimme" are at once precious and unsettling. It holds together better than "Six Pack," but its choppy, tweaked-out mannerisms feel too self-conscious for the song's guttural, primitive expression. Sure, that may be the point, but—where Pussy Galore's deconstruction of Exile on Main Street expressed a love of source material plus a deepening of its impulse—what Longstreth's approach adds here is debatable: Does it open "Gimme" to new shards of light, or is he just remixing the colors like magic markers bearing down on Polaroids? Longstreth certainly offers a new prism for Damaged on Rise Above, but it occasionally feels more like plexiglass and less like crystal quartz.
Longstreth succeeds in the closer, though: Black Flag opened Damaged with "Rise Above," but Longstreth ends with it. Longstreth may be right. Rollins' crisp emotional volleys—"Jealous cowards try to control," "I find satisfaction in what they lack," "We are born with a chance"—are among the closest things to gospel hardcore's ever produced. Longstreth doesn't try to do too much (the biggest complaint elsewhere) with the song's triumphant spirit. He tucks it into a warm arrangement.
It's not necessary to be complex: Sometimes the best way to compliment a song is to simplify it. But as often as not, Longstreth's vision exceeds his grasp on Rise Above, resulting in something imaginative but a bit too self-considered and, therefore, cloistered. But maybe that's what you get—or perhaps even want to get—when you try to cover an album from memory: an exercise.
The Dirty Projectors plays Duke Coffeehouse with Ecstatic Sunshine and Le Weekend Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $7.