The Dismemberment Plan have just released a new album; their first in a dozen years, after they split up, almost due to lack of interest, in 2003. Their previous album, Change, was their fourth, and this, from 1999, was their third. I love it.
Formed in Washington DC in the early 90s, The Plan, as their fans called them, were in that heritage of DC post-hardcore bands like Fugazi and Jawbox (J. Robbins, the latter’s singer and guitarist, is co-producer here). Unlike some of their forebears, though, The Plan didn’t have any kind of manifesto or ideology; they were just a good time party band, for gawky kids who didn’t quite fit in. They took the jerking, stop-start guitar thrash of post-hardcore and mixed in a bit of everything else they liked; hip hop, 80s synthpop and New Wave, funk, indie pop.
The result is a technicolour riot, far more flamboyant than their local progenitors were, and far more dorky, too: where Fugazi sang about mortgage foreclosures and house repossessions and the perils of capitalism, The Plan sang about following girls across the country and not knowing how to talk to them, about no one dancing at their gigs no matter how hard they tried, about imaginary fights where you get beaten-up by giants.
Emergency & I pushed The Dismemberment Plan over the parapet of indie rock circles in a way that, had it happened a decade later, might have seen them become one of the biggest bands on the planet. But in 1999 a 9.6 or whatever from Pitchfork didn’t mean quite what it did for Arcade Fire, even if it did make them a big deal in small circles. Maybe they were too dorky, but it was that dorkiness, as manifested in the socially-inept fantasy of “You Are Invited” – literally about receiving a magical invite that gets you into all the coolest parties you could only usually dream of attending – that marks them out as something special; if they’d been cool or didactic they’d not have captured the awkwardness of being in your early 20s quite so well.
And they do capture it with amazing insight and prescience, Travis Morrison’s lyrics a tumbling stream-of-conscience that seem to predict the likes of Facebook (“Memory Machine”), capture the frustrations of lust (“Girl O’Clock”), perfectly render the pain of dying, urban, post-adolescent romance (“The City”), and, occasionally, reach some kind of zenith of almost Joycean American tone-poetry (“Back and Forth”).
Which is all good and all, but which would be dull if the music backing it wasn’t twitchy and hooky as hell, a maniacal rhythm section and a hyperactive guitarist competing to show off the most but not in a bad way, keyboards and crazy production touches making musical colour match lyrical colour daub for garish daub.
I was thinking aloud on Twitter earlier about what makes a band “important”, and I think I was using the term pejoratively to refer to self-important proclamations about self-important music; Emergency & I feels important to me, but in a very personal, insular, microscopic way.
Tom Listened: I have spent a long time agonising over The Dismemberment Plan since Nick played it at record club. Nick lent me Emergency & I a while ago – I had been keen to hear it ever since it appeared in very high positions in some round up lists on the internet around the turn of the millennium. I guess the cover art caught my eye and the name stood out and, on reading about the band, the music sounded like it should be right up my street…
However, it never quite worked out for me and The Plan (or is it The Dismemberments?) and I returned Nick’s CD a little bemused as to:
a) Why I hadn’t clicked with the album.
b) Why it is so lauded.
So I was really pleased to have the chance to hear it again in a different context and thought that maybe a proper listen with a bit of heft and concentration would do the trick. But there is something about Emergency & I that I just don’t like…and I have found it nigh on impossible to pin down just what that is. Whilst I was deep in thought on this matter, I considered that it ticks pretty much all the right boxes for me and maybe this is the problem…it feels to me as though The Dismemberment Plan are trying to cast their net as wide as possible (as Nick has stated, it’s a much more varied and colourful beast than Jawbox’s album) and in so doing feel to me as though their music comes from the head not the heart – too clinical and calculated for my taste. But I could be wrong on this one as I am still really confuzzled and this is just a hunch.
Rob listened: I too have sort-of-worried about the Dismemberment Plan. We’ve talked about them before, quite a bit, and as Nick advocates so strongly I checked this album out and just couldn’t find anything attractive. I tried it a few times. Nothing. And then, of all things, after a long lay-off, I thought it sounded great this evening. I started to wonder what the hell i’d been hearing instead of this brimming collection of perky, spiky dork rock. I started to think I may have been… wrong.
Then I listened to it again the week following, and nah, nothing. As you were.
My conclusion as to why ‘Emergency’ and I don’t click? It’s an age thing. It sounds exactly like I imagined the descendants of the post-hardcore I loved would sound after they had, in my imagination, sucked out the rage, the life force, the will to be, the uncontainable verve from the music and replaced it with technical proficiency. I think this is my problem, not theirs. I’m sure Dismemberment Plan are committed and passionate musicians. I’ve seen nothing to gainsay that assumption. It just doesn’t sound like the bands I love. If I was ten years younger, i’m sure i’d be getting the same charge from this as I actually did from Fugazi, Circus Lupus, Shudder to Think. If I were ten years older, i’m sure I would have found those bands weak and watered down compared to Bad Religion, Descendants and Black Flag.