Like many rock musicians, David Longstreth has always dabbled in quieter, gentler genres. His love of classical, primarily the voices of a well-tuned and professionally-trained chamber choir, has put him in august company—as the natural heir to Wolf Parade and Modest Mouse, among others. Thus, he can rest assured that what once would have made him eccentric is now a familiar technique.
His brief flourishes, when applied with the care one normally expects from much more formal composers, fire small sparks from an otherwise temperate fire. His solo work fits together as congruously as a theorem—every note functions as the counterpart of another, and even bursts of static seem carefully, lovingly orchestrated. At his best, he can match up disparate sensibilities in a patchwork of infinite colors, and, in a virtuosic feat, make all of them sound expressly designed for his music. The man has a gift, and it’s not one to use unwisely. Without this special care, his penchant for quirky grandeur could easily turn pretentious.
On the surface, “Rise Above” looks tailored to avoid this pitfall. Longstreth describes the album as a re-imagined update of sorts—a near-copy of the Black Flag album “Damaged,” pieced together entirely from memory. The fact that he never consulted the album while composing both excites and unsettles, as he’s banking everything on the strength of his nostalgia. To make the endeavor even more hair-raising, he claims that he hasn’t heard the album since his freshman year of high school. Consequently, it’s all the more amazing that, by and large, the album succeeds. It plays like a paean to the archetypal muse—and, as a model of cross-genre pollination, heralds the band as masters of the eclectic.
The album’s best moments are brief, tortured and wrenching. One can almost hear them straining against their sources. Ambling guitar solos pale against towering walls of noise, and high, ethereal hymns dovetail with Longstreth’s voice. A bizarre voice it is, too: creaky and strangled, infused with pathos and heavy with desperation, it slides and wavers and never settles down, as though each note is unworthy of attention.
In “Depression,” these vocals intertwine perfectly with the material: “This situation is bleeding me and there’s no relief,” sings Longstreth, whose choked-up cries fully support his lyrics.
In “Six Pack,” a jaunty guitar progression juices up his choir, who follow his words like backup singers in a poppy Motown classic.
“Police Story” follows an elegant flute duet into far more modern waters: an acoustic call-to-arms and a few well-placed shrieks expand the song and give it power, building up a peak from which it can slowly descend.
“Thirsty and Miserable” leavens it all with jazz: pinging guitar and quickly stuttering hi-hats dampen the album’s tone, providing us with a break from the underlying energy. The track sounds like the work of a dedicated music listener, one who chooses his influences properly and adroitly.
There are flaws, though. Most of them stem from Black Flag’s style: whenever Longstreth makes a concession to classic punk, he detracts from his own abilities and dilutes the song as a whole. Feedback temper tantrums are peppered throughout the album, most of them unwanted and all of them utterly jarring. “Gimme Gimme Gimme” nearly topples due to these outbursts, and “Room 13” sounds grinding and out of place. For most of the album, these sputters are barely noticeable—they don’t last long enough to tear the song to pieces. But in the above examples they pose a serious problem, and the band would have benefited by hewing more to themselves.
The rock musician who claims to be an auteur is always a precarious figure, but the one who can pull it off is worthy of our attention. David Longstreth is just such an artist: he has listened to everything and discriminated nothing, and has made his music a tribute of all he’s heard. Like Spencer Krug before him and Isaac Brock before that, he will not compromise his tastes for the sake of his chosen genre. The result is a glorious mess worth checking out.