In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: For Breaking Bad week, we talk about our favorite songs about troubles with the law.
On its face, the concept is downright profane: hoity-toity art-rock combo Dirty Projectors re-imagining the songs of Black Flag, an act whose very existence should’ve pounded the term “re-imagining” out of the rock ’n’ roll vocabulary. If Rise Above was intended to provoke a reaction from the musicians who originally recorded “Depression,” “Six Pack,” and “Police Story,” it succeeded on at least one count, with founding Black Flag member and SST Records chief Greg Ginn later saying of the record, “I’m really tired of the whole postmodern irony in independent music. That stuff can be entertaining, but I’m more interested in hearing someone do something that’s coming from them and isn’t a trick of the media or perception.” If he was still smarting two years after Rise Above’s release, he certainly found a good way to get a revenge on Dirty Projectors: opening for the band in Austin with a set of noodly jam-based nonsense that somehow didn’t fly with fans actively seeking atonal riffs and odd time signatures.
Ginn’s comments to the contrary, I’ve always interpreted Rise Above as an act of sincere homage. Dirty Projectors leader David Longstreth opted to record a full-album cover of Black Flag’s Damaged, a critical building block of West Coast hardcore, from memory. He re-arranged the songs, but when it came to recalling the lyrics originally spat out by Henry Rollins, he used only the ones he remembered, tapping into a past version of himself that found so much meaning and catharsis in tracks like “Police Story.” Dirty Projectors’ version of that track could be heard as Rise Above’s biggest middle finger to its inspiration, the klaxon-and-buzzsaw attack of its intro replaced by flitting woodwinds and acoustic strumming. Calling out to his former self, Longstreth hiccups through the anti-authority screed, a call to arms against a force that actively discriminated against Black Flag and its fans.
But the whole appeal of Rise Above has always been the record’s own sense of alienation, this strange sense of a musician rectifying his punk-rock past with his overly mannered present—music that’s no less challenging than anything on Damaged, but certainly not the kind that would make would-be Longstreths or Ginns (or Nat Baldwins, entranced by the percolating bass work that’s been the glue of the Projectors’ last three LPs) pick up a guitar and think “Hey, I could do that!” Yet putting the words of “Police Story” in such a strange, unfamiliar setting reinforces the spirit of those words, this idea that wanting to be outwardly different and live outside the norm will always require a fight. It’s a sentiment that appealed to the outsiders who heard kindred spirits in the songs of Damaged as well as their successors who took to Rise Above—and one that will resonate with whatever generation of weirdos comes next. This telling of “Police Story” isn’t necessarily reverent, but it’s not wholly irreverent either. (Though it’s pretty irreverent toward cops, because fuck anyone who’s going to use a badge to pretend like they’re above the law, right?)