Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Revisit: The Dismemberment Plan - Emergency and I

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If the rotting corpses of the Jesus and Mary Chain can be taken out of storage and dusted off for a reunion tour that bizarrely includes some stage time with Scarlet Johansson, I suppose a Dismemberment Plan reunion is still possible. After calling it quits in 2003, the band reunited briefly in 2007, though this was little more than a one-off occasion and, unfortunately, not the triumphant return of one of indie rock's most sorely missed bands. If the Washington, D.C. band's history is indeed finished, their legacy as one of music's more creative and inventive bands seems assured, due in large part to their landmark album Emergency & I.

Now nearly 10 years after its initial release, back in those heady days when people actually paid for albums and carried their music around in cumbersome things called jewel cases, Emergency & I still sounds relevant and entirely original. Whereas other albums from around this time that received similar effusive praise - Midnite Vultures and Kid A come to mind - have since lost their appeal thanks in large part to their experimental excesses, Emergency & I still stands as one of those rare near-perfect albums. That the band had the good sense to get the hell out before they had a chance to wreck their legacy a la the Sex Pistols might have something to do with it; regardless, for those of us who have played the shit out of this album over the years, it never gets stale or repetitive.

The album mixes and blends a dizzying array of musical genres and styles, without coming across as a disjointed, schizophrenic mess. Indeed no two songs sound exactly the same; on Emergency &I the Plan distillates everything from hip-hop to R&B to mope rock into a whole other beast. In interviews, and perhaps with varying degrees of sincerity, lead singer Travis Morrison would compare the band's sound to acts such as Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Talking Heads. It was somehow both completely accurate and woefully inadequate.

Though Morrison's vocals often recall a less snarky version of Stephen Malkmus, the band's overall sound is much harder to define. It's subtly evocative of so many bands and genres, yet sounds exactly like none of them. Though the term "dance-punk" has occasionally been tossed around to describe Emergency & I, that's little more than a clever label that sounds nice and doesn't mean a damn thing. Certainly the album recalls a broad range of artists, including Television ("A Life of Possibilities"), a perverse mix of Pixies and Prince ("I Love a Magician"), and Pavement (closing track "Back and Forth," with its rapidly spoken vocals and insistent musical arrangement, sounds like a companion piece to Pavement's "Conduit for Sale"). The songs are stylistically diverse, often jumping from genre to genre. The sparse percussion that dominates the first few minutes of "You Are Invited" eventually gets swallowed up by drums and guitars, and "The City" builds slowly, ultimately peaking with Morrison's reedy and strained vocals. It's an album of studio wizardry and tricks whose songs incorporate elements of funk, hip hop, and hardcore. "I Love a Magician" and "Girl O'Clock" still defy categorization.

Beneath the album's mostly upbeat arrangements and frequent flashes of humor are fairly dour lyrics. Though it's not entirely accurate to describe Emergency & I as a breakup album, - such a term implies that it's something akin to Blood On the Tracks - several songs do focus on this theme. Sometimes this topic is addressed with humor. "Gyroscope" unfolds as a tale about how each combatant in a recently disintegrated relationship is handling the fallout. It's a song of mutual self-delusion; while the female copes by "wearing too much lipstick tonight/ A little black dress a little too tight" and the male convinces himself that "the reminders don't bother him in the least/ The Jekyll and Hyde shit will finally cease," it's merely a front, with Morrison promising some sour emotions later on: "If you spin fast enough than maybe the broken pieces of your heart will stay together/ But some things I've seen lately make me doubt it."Other songs are simply achingly sad. "The City" is perhaps the album's most wrenching song, equal parts regret and resignation.

Other songs are heavy with restlessness, boredom, loneliness, and apathy; anyone who spent their mid-twenties shuttling between a downtown office building and a shitty apartment can sympathize here. Two of the album's more reserved and melodic songs - "Spider In the Snow" and "The Jitters" - are also the album's bleakest. "Spider In the Snow" is a depiction of complete dissatisfaction with life's daily mundane routine; the song's character is essentially killing time, his primary comfort a heavy dose of cynicism. "The Jitters" expresses similar sentiments, with its narrator thoroughly beaten down and airing a laundry list of complaints: "Always tired, need a nap/ I have to make myself brush my teeth/ I've made a list of everything I've ever owned/ When the days bring nothing new/ and the sound of laughter makes you sick." Such images of indifference and resignation course throughout the album; now stare at your shoes and sob quietly.

Emergency & I remains one of the few albums where it's hard to not totally geek out like a drooling, hero-worshipping fanboy. Its musical influences are far-ranging and diverse, with these reference points distilled into a style that sounds as unique today as it did in 1999. Of course by now the album has been praised and analyzed to death by eager fans and critics alike, yet it somehow still seems insufficient. All these borderline psychotic reviews still can only hint at what makes this album so engaging and original.

by Eric Whelchel

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