Engaging and intelligent, the Dismemberment Plan emerged from Washington DC in the early ’90s, playing a unique and infectious brand of pop-savvy post-punk in the tradition of the Buzzcocks, Gang of Four and Fugazi while occasionally straying into dub and reggae territory. Their songs marry angular guitar and keyboard lines to tight, complex rhythm tracks for a catchy and often danceable mix whose secret weapon is in the bass and drums. Guitarist Travis Morrison delivers lyrics that are, by turns, insightful and absurd in a voice that is sometimes melodic, sometimes spastic. The Dismemberment Plan is a rare thing: a band that, while certainly not without its evident influences, has managed to carve an audio personality out of the sonic landscape.
After arriving on the scene in 1994 with the single “Can We Be Mature?,” the Dismemberment Plan — Morrison, guitarist Jason Caddell, bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley — released their first full-length album, the tersely titled !, in late 1995. A strong debut, it introduced the frantic, taut style that would develop to maturity over the course of the next several years. “Survey Says,” “Soon to Be Ex-Quaker” and “Onward, Fat Girl” have clever wordplay and a quirky intensity that manages to be as entertaining as it is unsettling.
The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified is a serious improvement, displaying a more expansive approach. While the scathing “Academy Award” and the full-on spazz attack of “One Too Many Blows to the Head” are stylistically similar to !, other songs exhibit greater sophistication: “Do the Standing Still” is a nuanced jab at indie-rock scenesters, while “The Ice of Boston” is a funny, poignant and supremely catchy tale of bruised egos and wounded infatuation. As the decade drew to a close and the music kept improving, the Dismemberment Plan was going places.
But where? By 1998, the group had attracted the attention of Interscope, which released The Ice of Boston, an EP combining the largely spoken album track with three other songs (one of which, a demo of the haunting “Spider in the Snow,” is on the subsequent album). Then the bottom fell out: Interscope underwent a reorganization, and the Dismemberment Plan were dropped from the label.
Perhaps it was just as well. Soon after, DeSoto released Emergency & I, a stunning collection that established the group as much more than major-label almost-rans. Solid from first to last, Emergency & I features some of the Dismemberment Plan’s most inspired playing. Despite such highlights as the bizarre urban fairy tale (and chilly krautrock beat) of “You Are Invited,” the seething “What Do You Want Me to Say?” and the desperate “The City,” nearly every song demonstrates substantial stylistic and lyrical progression. The quartet has never been tighter, with the rhythmic interplay in “Back and Forth” careening off the chiming guitars to brilliant effect.
In 2001, DeSoto augmented a 2000 European 7-inch split with Seattle’s Juno with two bonus songs and issued it as a US EP, on which each band does a new original and a cover. The Dismemberment Plan unveiled “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich” and a rendition of the Jennifer Paige dance-pop hit “Crush.” The former is a hilarious fantasy about drug smuggling, money laundering and failed political campaigns, driven by a kinetic drum track and punctuated with bells and whistles. The latter is a brooding interpretation of dancefloor fluff. (Juno’s instrumental version of DJ Shadow’s cut-and-paste masterpiece “High Noon” is also entertaining.)
Change contains some of the foursome’s best work to date, a seamless integration of music and lyric. “Timebomb,” for instance, is unrelenting in its intensity, the instrumental delivery amplifying the menace of the words. And then there are sublimely charming lines like “I’m an Old Testament type of guy/I like my coffee black and my parole denied” (from “Sentimental Man”). The dubby thump of “Face of the Earth” provides a hypnotic foundation for Morrison’s Borges-like story of a spontaneous, terrifying event. On “The Other Side,” Easley provides an impossibly complex beat which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Goldie record.