The Dismemberment Plan – Uncanney Valley
The uncanny valley is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the uneasiness that comes with dealing with simulations that imitate human features and movements closely, like mannequins or CGI animations, but are unnervingly different. In that sense, intentional or not, Uncanney Valley ends up being the perfect title for the Dismemberment Plan’s fifth album and first in 12 years. Without a doubt this is a Dismemberment Plan record—Travis Morrison’s mercurial vocals and Joe Easley’s elastic drums confirm that—but there’s something…off. (And it’s not just the misspelled album title.) That “something” can be mostly attributed to the fact the band is a decade older and that 2013 is a much different year than 2001. Whereas a twentysomething Morrison spent the Plan’s early albums working through his anxieties and trying to cope with maturity, he’s now a man on the verge of middle age. With his concerns lying elsewhere, it makes some sense that the music is different: the band members are older and more comfortable with themselves, so it follows that their music is more comfortable too. This is still the same restlessly creative band of yore, but there isn’t the same urgency below the surface, that off-the-cuff inventiveness that made their best work sound so bracing and personal. That has a lot to do with the production, which is more expansive and polished than ever, snapping in samples and sound effects in and around songs like a puzzle, with every sound cleanly organized and mixed, even when it seems to come out of nowhere. In short, the Dismemberment Plan has never sounded this much like a well-oiled machine, yet once you get over the initial shock, Uncanney Valley ends up emerging as a sweet, hopeful, if not great, epilogue to the band’s story.
It’s their shortest album, and that focus keeps things tight and accessible, even when the band navigates through their trademark stylistic turns, playing like a streamlined, ironed-out version of Emergency & I. That directness has its perks, though, especially given Morrison’s ear for off-kilter hooks: the jerky vocals make “No One’s Saying Nothing” a brighter, smoother take on Emergency‘s “A Life Of Possibilities;” the effervescent “Waiting” and skipping “White Collar White Trash” are great, skewed pop, and “Lookin'” is the simplest, prettiest song in the Plan’s catalogue. Uncanney is still too weird to be their version of Weezer’s Green Album, the 2001 comeback that heralded that band’s current status as goofy pop formalists, but it still suffers from one of Weezer’s major late-period issues. Now, Morrison shares some of Rivers Cuomo’s endearing/annoyingly corny humor (the “When I say…you say…” sequence on “Let’s Just Go To The Dogs Tonight;” the sexcapade satire “White Collar White Trash”) and fondness of earnest sentiment that can border on cliché (the sort-of cheesy but very hooky “Go And Get It”). It’s not so much the stab at humor itself that’s the problem—in a world drenched in irony and emotional distance, it’s weirdly a bit refreshing to hear him going for broke on silly dad-jokes—it’s that because of it, the whole album comes off as slight. And that’s especially disappointing considering Morrison was a damn fine lyricist, who found comedy in everyday tragedy and vice versa, and while there’s hints of that here (especially in “Waiting” and “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”), it’s generally tossed aside for something altogether flat. That might be a deal-breaker for some listeners, the way it was for Weezer’s fans, but the relative consistency of the songwriting here should help quell the discomfort. After all, it’s hard to argue with more Dismemberment Plan, even if what you were served isn’t what you ordered. Keep an open mind, and you might just go home happy.
The Dismemberment Plan – Change
While Emergency & I justifiably goes down as the Dismemberment Plan’s definitive album, Change is nearly as worthy of the honor, yet was largely overlooked in 2001 because of the Strokes’ ascendancy the previous month. As it turned out, Change was the Plan’s final studio album before their breakup, but other than the generally more relaxed mood, there’s nothing that suggests this is a group on the verge of creative collapse. Indeed, this record displays them at the peak of their powers, figuring out how to challenge themselves and pulling it off with panache. Travis Morrison referred to Change as a “night album,” something moody, involving and contemplative, and there’s no argument here. Using Emergency‘s ambling, less-structured moments, like “The Jitters” and “Back And Forth,” as a starting point, the Plan delve into more atmospheric, rhythmic territory here, eschewing diversity for focus. And since the music doesn’t style-jump as much, it places more emphasis on Morrison’s wry, poetic lyrics, which are as honest and well-observed as ever, perhaps even more so. There’s an inevitable confessional vibe that comes with a record that feels so introspective, but Morrison gets a lot of mileage out of it, approaching each song a different way. Whether he’s waxing philosophical (“Sentimental Man,” “Following Through”); cataloguing a relationship (“Ellen And Ben”); playing with surreal metaphors (“The Face Of The Earth,” “Superpowers”) or lashing out (“Time Bomb”), there’s an intellectual and emotional heft to these tracks that a lot of modern rock sorely lacks. Yet even if the album was instrumental, Change would still be an engaging album, simply because the Plan are more musically talented than most of their ilk, particularly their virtuosic rhythmic section, drummer Joe Easley and bassist Eric Axelson (check out the live jungle performance on “The Other Side” for instant proof). Because most of this record is about groove and flow, it puts the group’s electronic, jazz and R&B influences into sharper relief, resulting in some truly arresting moments and arrangements like the vibrating keyboard riff in “Superpowers,” the swinging wash of “Sentimental Man” or the spare, acoustic “Automatic.” That said, the Plan can’t help but punctuate the record with tracks like “Pay For The Piano” and the rampaging “Secret Curse” that recall their early post-hardcore work. Given the downcast, lyrically dense nature of the record, it takes more time to get into than other Plan albums, but its rewards are as great as any of the best moments in their oeuvre. If the Dismemberment Plan’s career began with an !, it’s rather fitting, if frustrating, that Change ended it with an ellipsis, one that remained until their reunion 10 years later.