The Dismemberment Plan

”There’s a feeling coming back / connected by a thread / pulling at your hands like a spiderweb / like a kite that isn’t there.”

Album Year Rating
“!” 1995 2.32/pi
The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified 1997 2.41/pi
The Ice of Boston EP 1998 1.81/pi
Emergency & I 1999 3.03/pi
Juno & The Dismemberment Plan EP by Juno & The Dismemberment Plan 2001 2.23/pi
Change 2001 3.01/pi
Travistan by Travis Morrison 2004 2.28/pi

These guys play that “music” stuff you kids keep telling me about. I disapprove of such frivolity.

The Plan has become one of my favorite bands. When they’re on, they’ve got it all: energy, humor, funk, oomph, candy-coated-crack melodies, and oodles of style. They put out two really obnoxiously good albums, and two other albums that are a bit more obnoxious and less good.

If you want, you can take the best half of Emergency & I and the best half of Change, burn them to one CD, and call it the best album ever. But that would be historically inaccurate. You asshole.

Main lineup: Travis Morrison: guitar, keyboards, vocals. Jason Caddell: guitar, keyboards. Eric Axelson: bass, keyboards. Joe Easley: drums after the debut.

Other personnel: Steve Cummings: drums on first album.

“!”

1995; Rating: 2.32/pi

Composition: ~ / Lyrics: + / Production: + / Innovation: ~

  • 01 Survey Says [A−]
  • 02 The Things that Matter [A]
  • 03 The Small Stuff [A]
  • 04 Ok, Joke’s Over [B−]
  • 05 Soon to Be Ex-Quaker [B]
  • 06 I’m Going to Buy You a Gun [B−]
  • 07 If I Don’t Write [A−]
  • 08 Wouldn’t You Like to Know? [B]
  • 09 13th and Euclid [B]
  • 10 Fantastic! [B+]
  • 11 Onward, Fat Girl [A−]
  • 12 Rusty [A−]

The band’s first album is a competent collection of abrasive post-punk. Everything is still in a very embryonic state here. The hardcore fans will find much to like here—hardcore fans of the band but also fans of hardcore, since this is a lot more obviously an immigrant from hardcore punkdom than any of their later material.

Standout cookin’ riff-fest “The Things That Matter” is a larval classic, and several other songs display the Plan’s emerging way with hooks—but a few of these songs show more potential than actual listenability. The saving grace that makes this album worthy in its own right is Eric Axelson’s bass wizardry—which even at this early date gives things a bounce that few other punk bands can ever hope to muster.

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THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN IS TERRIFIED

1997; Rating: 2.41/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: ++ / Production: + / Innovation: +

  • 01 Tonight We Mean It [A−]
  • 02 That’s When the Party Started [B+]
  • 03 The Ice of Boston [A−]
  • 04 Academy Award [B+]
  • 05 Bra [A−]
  • 06 Do the Standing Still [B+]
  • 07 This Is the Life [B+]
  • 08 One Too Many Blows to the Head [B+]
  • 09 It’s So You [B+]
  • 10 Manipulate Me [A]
  • 11 Respect Is Due [A]

Definitely an improvement, this one. The band is more comfortable in the studio by now; there are no more beginner’s-mistake production choices like the weird chimey synth shit on “Soon to Be Ex-Quaker”. Morrison has improved significantly as a singer and lyricist. Everything generally just sounds better, bolder, funkier, etc. And there’s more variety to the arrangements, culminating in the band’s first serious stab at balladeering, the closing cynical ashtray epic “Respect Is Due”.

But while the band is beginning to stake out an identity, their writing is still sometimes weighed down by recycled chords and gratuitous tunelessness. All of these songs at least have something to offer, but the glory days are yet to come.

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THE ICE OF BOSTON EP

1998; Rating: 1.81/pi

Composition: ~ / Lyrics: + / Production: + / Innovation: ~ / Total: 2.11/pi

  • 01 The Ice of Boston [A−]
  • 02 The First Anniversary of Your Last Phone Call [B]
  • 03 Just Like You [C+]
  • 04 Spider in the Snow (alternate version) [A]

The relic of a brief major label flirtation, this EP was the band’s first odd little lunge at the big time. It’s hard to imagine any of this stuff getting on the radio. The title track, while a fine song, was probably the least catchy thing on Terrified. The b-sides show the band emboldened by the success of the high drama of “Respect Is Due”. Unfortunately, these attempts come off rather brash and hookless,. The exception, of course, is future album track “Spider in the Snow”, a slightly off-kilter ballad and a genuine classic. Here it’s rendered a little raw, a little off-key, but with a warmer, fuller sound than on the more well-known version. This, at least, was arguably the best song the band had ever recorded up to this point, and certainly an indicator of great things ahead.

We never got to see what might have been, though, as the band was dropped in the midst of corporate shufflings at Interscope. The funny thing is, that sob story is what finally got them some small measure of media attention…

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EMERGENCY & I

1999; Rating: 3.03/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: ++ / Production: ++ / Innovation: +

  • 01 A Life of Possibilities [A−]
  • 02 Memory Machine [A]
  • 03 What Do You Want Me to Say? [B]
  • 04 Spider in the Snow [A]
  • 05 The Jitters [B+]
  • 06 I Love a Magician [A]
  • 07 You Are Invited [A−]
  • 08 Gyroscope [A+]
  • 09 The City [A+]
  • 10 Girl O’Clock [B+]
  • 11 8 1/2 Minutes [A]
  • 12 Back & Forth [A+]

…thus we have this thingy, recorded in the bowels of Interscope, but released back on trusty old indie label De Soto. It doesn’t show many signs of major label meddling or big budget production, thankfully. What it does demonstrate is some seriously matured songwriting. Yessireebob, those young punks who hacked out “!” are all grown up, and they’ve turned out a gem. Terrified was a fine record, but at least half of these songs are better than anything on that album. I don’t know exactly what kind of Wheaties they were feeding these guys at Interscope headquarters, but it sure paid off!

There are a couple of minor complaints. “What Do you Want Me to Say?”, originally a 1997 single, sounds out of place here in its relatively generic guitar anthemics. And there are still occasions where the group’s dissonant flailing-about gets overbearing. But those are minor flaws on a great fucking album. Everything is improved here.

Whereas their previous work had a samey feel—similar chords, similar crashing sneering post-punk choruses, now we have stuff like “Spider in the Snow”, ushering in a new, more thoughtful Plan—still sharp and funny, but with some emotional heft as well—with a powerful chorus frozen inside a glacier of synthesizers.

The old school Plan isn’t gone, of course—in fact, it’s here and it’s considerably better than before, with classic bent rockers like “Memory Machine” and “I Love a Magician”. But the real core of the album is in tracks like “The City” and “Back & Forth”, with ringing guitars and whirring synths and buckets full of soul (or is it vomit?)—if this stuff doesn’t kick your ass, sir or madam, you haven’t got one.

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JUNO & THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN EP

by Juno & The Dismemberment Plan; 2001; Rating: 2.23/pi

Composition: ~ / Lyrics: + / Production: + / Innovation: ~

  • 01 The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich! [A−]
  • 02 Non-Equivalents [B+]
  • 03 High Noon [A−]
  • 04 Crush [C+]

A split EP featuring one original and one cover each by these two fine bands. The Plan kick thing into high gear with their world domination anthem, “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich!”, which captures Morrison at his most spastic. It wouldn’t sound out of place on Terrified. In stark contrast is Jennifer Paige’s teen-pop hit “Crush”, here given the creepy dirge treatment to strange and not exactly good effect.

Juno, meanwhile, give us two slightly more conventional slices of rock ’n’ roll, with the original “Non-Equivalents” and an intriguingly guitarified cover of DJ Shadow’s “High Noon”.

Nothing too suprising here, but it’s all quality material. The disc ain’t a particularly great introduction to either band, but it’s a pretty little morsel for fans.

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CHANGE

2001; Rating: 3.01/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: + / Production: ++ / Innovation: +

  • 01 Sentimental Man [A−]
  • 02 The Face of the Earth [A]
  • 03 Superpowers [A]
  • 04 Pay for the Piano [B−]
  • 05 Come Home [B+]
  • 06 Secret Curse [A−]
  • 07 Automatic [B+]
  • 08 Following Through [A+]
  • 09 Time Bomb [A+]
  • 10 The Other Side [A+]
  • 11 Ellen & Ben [A−]

How the heck do you follow up a critically acclaimed masterpiece like Emergency & I? Do you try to duplicate the previous record? Go off in a totally new direction? Or maybe just break up? Never a band for half-measures, the Dismemberment Plan decided to do all three.

With Change, the Plan largely left behind the sharp, tightly-wound aesthetic of their previous records. In one pre-release interview, Morrison referred to it as a “late night” record, and there is indeed a more laid back, nocturnal groove to this album. The band’s trademark humor is largely absent or at least more subdued, with the new songs instead drawing from the introspection of tracks like “Back & Forth” and “Spider in the Snow”.

That’s a bit disappointing, but it’s not necessarily all bad, since those were the among the best songs on Emergency & I. Even as the Plan leaves behind many of the things that made it great back in 1997, they come up with an equally fine mixture for 2001. “Following Through” may be the straightest pop-rock song they’ve ever recorded, but it fully justifies itself with a harmonized hook sure to make you long for an eternal 1964.

On the other hand, they still seem keen on reminding us that they are indeed the band that produced Emergency & I. The first track, “Sentimental Man”, is in some ways a mirror image of the previous album’s opener, with its slow burning groove punctuated by isolated guitar crashes. But there is no explosive finale here; it simply dissolves seamlessly into “The Face of the Earth”.

The obvious insta-highlight, “Time Bomb”, likewise feels like this album’s answer to “The City”, with its wounded vocals and another barrage of electro-riffs—until everything drops away, leaving Travis all alone as he warns: “I am a time bomb and I only live in that one moment in which you die.”

With “The Other Side”, the next and penultimate track, the band brings its old hyperactive funk to its logical conclusion. The band sounds almost superhuman. Easley and Axelson supply a stabbing, rolling, live drum ’n’ bass freakout, while the guitars swoop and dive overhead like drunken angels. Frankly, it puts most bands to shame. I dare you not to get up and move your ass in confused solidarity by the time Morrison shouts “I’ll be damned if I feel like I will ever know anything!”

On the other hand, a straight rocker like “Pay for the Piano” demonstrates how far the band has wandered from its D.C. punk roots. On a previous album, it could have turned out well, but here, it wallows in murky, constipated production.

Closer “Ellen & Ben” is a solid Atari funk number, but it feels a little lost—even the narrator seems uncertain about what he’s doing in the song. It’s a strange effect, and perhaps a hint at the group’s imminent breakup.

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TRAVISTAN

by Travis Morrison; 2004; Rating: 2.28/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: − / Production: ~ / Innovation: ~

  • 01 Get Me off of this Coin A [B−]
  • 02 Change [B]
  • 03 Born in ’72 [B+]
  • 04 My Two Front Teeth II & III [B+]
  • 05 Get Me off of this Coin B [B−]
  • 06 People Die [B+]
  • 07 Song for the Orca [A−]
  • 08 Any Open Door [A−]
  • 09 Get Me off of this Coin C [B−]
  • 10 Che Guevera Poster [B+]
  • 11 The Word Cop [A]
  • 12 Angry Angel [B]
  • 13 Get Me off of this Coin D [B−]
  • 14 Represent [A−]

Travis Morrison, having discarded the Dismemberment Plan like a used rubber, has recently released his first solo album. You may remember it popping out with a barely audible whimper in September. It got eviscerated by the critics, and not entirely without justification. Not only has every trace of the Plan’s punk roots been removed—the lush, mature, and emotionally charged pop mixture that was developing in those later albums has been dropped as well. The final product is a curious skeletal remnant, stripped bare and not quite sure of itself, like a living embodiment of Morrison’s tics and neuroses.

The Plan always thrived on intensity. It was their tightly wound energy that propelled tracks that otherwise would have collapsed under the weight of Morrison’s convoluted, unpredictable melodies. In this set of light, slightly fussy pop songs, it’s awkward city. Opener “Change” could conceivably have worked in some form, but here it’s arranged as a bizarre, tinny, near-guitarless “rocker” that never quite gets off the ground. Not surprisingly, the one real highlight, “The Word Cop”, is also the one song that has some actual drive.

The lyrics could have been Travistan’s saving grace, but the slight rut that began with Change has only deepened here. He’s switched his focus from romance to politics, but he sounds chronically unsure of himself, tiptoeing around the big issues and taking potshots at easy targets: college kids with Che posters, hypocritical Christian conservatives, racial profiling, et al. The songs don’t always seem to know whether they’re supposed to be serious or funny, and sometimes end up being neither. “My Two Front Teeth” spends five minutes dwelling upon its mundane subject matter without ever really going anywhere. Some of the songs have better lyrics, but nothing really approaches the incisiveness of his best work, which makes the occasional clunker difficult to ignore. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, “Get Me off of this Coin” interludes.)

So, basically, this album is a failure. It’s not as bad as it has sometimes been portrayed—Morrison’s formidable songwriting abilities have not simply vanished in a puff of smoke—but it seems to find him rebelling against many of the things that made the Plan great, without providing a truly substantial alternative.

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