In spite of music culture's constant craving for new waves and next-big-things, there are always those bands that do not hew to any marketable bubble, the ones that skew the trends and equations of rock chronologies with their sui generis melds. After several albums of high-flying concepts, sheet music-necessitating technique, and stylistic miscegenation, Dave Longstreth's Dirty Projectors have firmly established themselves as such a group.
First conceived in New Haven, Conn., Longstreth's namesake went through many permutations before settling in Brooklyn as an elemental two guitars-bass-drums quartet. The current grouping plays the leader's chamber-rock compositions with fire and finesse. Bassist Angel Deradoorian and guitarist Amber Coffman's double-helix backup vocals leave Longstreth free to float his quivering voice and slash at his thin, West Africankissed guitar lines as if they were exclamations. Hypertuned and aerobic, a Dirty Projectors concert is a bold tonic of intellectualism and adrenaline.
I try to say as much to Longstreth when I catch him on the phone in Brooklyn, and he muses, "I kind of like feeling that that's a component of the feeling of the music ... [that] tension of the relatedness, or unrelatedness, of what our mouths are doing and what our fingers are doing." All of Longstreth's Dirty Projectors records are accordingly stretchy, though last year's Rise Above (Dead Oceans) is probably the most cohesive formulation of the project's intrinsic push-pull. The back story, well trod by now, is that Longstreth recovered a cassette case for Black Flag's hardcore LP, Damaged (SST, 1984), without the actual tape, and in a flight of Borgesian invention, set out on writing songs refracted by his memory of the original album.
Longstreth has indulged similarly sly threads before 2005's The Getty Address (Western Vinyl) had something to do with Don Henley though hardcore pieties meant Rise Above received more scrutiny than usual. "We got some really amazing hate mail on our MySpace page," Longstreth says, laughing. Hardly a straightforward tribute, Rise Above references the essential "no" of Black Flag's attack in both music and lyric, but inscribes the songs with double-consciousness and complexity rather than Greg Ginn's brute strength.
Syrupy strings introduce a snaky, sweet guitar line and a dirty disco bottom. Thundering female and male choruses overhang Longstreth's echoing verse before launching off for an oasis of backwards guitars and cymbals. This all happens a couple of minutes into "No More." Longstreth may think in fragments, but the resulting sound is one of passion, not math. His hot-blooded appreciation of pop and R&B he mentions T-Pain and Chris Brown as two current interests doesn't come with a smirk. Though these elements are mostly cloaked in convolution on Dirty Projectors recordings, Longstreth occasionally offers a more unobstructed view of his visionary soul music. The title track of Rise Above sounds almost newborn in its plaintive wail, and the same can be said for older tracks like "Not Having Found" from The Getty Address and "Unmoved" from Slaves' Graves and Ballads (Western Vinyl, 2004).
With all the rehashing of post-punk over the last several years, it's hard to imagine a more eloquent last word on the subject than Rise Above. When Longstreth looked back on an earlier era, it wasn't to revive something: it was to let it go, and then keep right on pushing ahead. When I ask Longstreth what he's been up to, he tells me he's been busy working through new material with the band for their upcoming tour. "The music's written with [them] in mind," he explains.