Heads On Sticks & Ventriloquists

The prodigious writings of a tortured genius.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Emergency and I

The Dismemberment Plan were the Talking Heads of their generation. No, I take that back, they should have been the Talking Heads of their generation. There really was and is no one else that I think could hold that place in post millenium -- excuse me, Willenium -- pop music. Who would hold that title today: The Decemberists? No, not quite weird enough. Animal Collective? A little too weird. The Flaming Lips? Well, that might be about right.

I'm writing this because I want to honor the Plan's music, despite their career ending prematurely. They are irrefuteably good. In fact, I honestly don't think I could like nor trust someone who thought they were not good. I immediately check out any band that is even passingly compared to The Dismemberment Plan, but I'm almost always disappointed by their blandness and okay-ness (We Are Scientists, anyone?). While my top 5 favorite albums are always changing, there's always two constants: Radiohead's Kid A and The Dismemberment Plan's Emergency and I. The former would be the "winter album" and the latter would be the "summer album". It's Memorial Day weekend, it's summer, it's hot; what better way to begin it all than with a look at one of the best summer albums ever created.

While I never really stop listening to The Dismemberment Plan, I recently began listening to them a whole lot more since their two-show-only reunion in DC. Emergency and I is great simply because it came out at exactly the right time (much like Kid A, The College Dropout, and Kid Dynamite's self-titled, just to name a few). The Plan were already on the path to re-shaping their spazz punk in a more melodic direction with the release of their mildly popular single "The Ice of Boston".

Also, before Emergency and I was ever released, the lyrics were already great. In fact, Travis Morrison is one of the best lyricists I've ever heard. And when I say that, I'm including all lyricists... ever. They are funny, but they are meaningful in their funniness. Here's an excerpt from "The Ice of Boston" in which Travis has moved from Washington DC to Boston in order to be with someone. However the relationship is not working out and he's in his apartment on New Year's Eve by himself.

Pop open a third bottle of bubbly
Yeah, and I take that bottle of champagne
Go into the kitchen, stand in front of the kitchen window
And I take all my clothes off, take that bottle of champagne
And I pour it on my head, feel it cascade through my hair
And across my chest, and the phone rings.
And it’s my mother.
And she says “HI HONEY HOW’S BOSTON?”
And I stand there, all alone on New Year’s Eve
Buck naked, drenched in champagne, looking at a bunch of strangers.
Uh, looking at them, looking at me, looking at them, and I say:
“Oh, I’m fine Mom—how’s Washington?”

Sure it's funny, but it's a dark sort of funny. It's the kind of funny of having been in a bad place at one point and being able to look back on it with humor.

The sound of Emergency and I is distinctly DC. It sounds like Fugazi if they were fronted by David Byrne. Or perhaps if Frank Black was Q And Not U's ghostwriter. I guess I could call it pop-punk, but that would be doing the whole thing a disservice. It's extraordinarily funky, with the rhythm section really flexing their muscle on most of these tracks. I imagine Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy playing the twirling guitar melody on opener "A Life of Possibilities". "Spider in the Snow" is a synth-driven jogger with talk-singing that is like a mix of Cake and The Cure. Closer "Back and Forth" is an all-out funk jam -- that could honestly be a remastered b-side to Remain in the Light -- about going out for the night and could not be a more appropriate way to end the album.

Probably the most profound aspect of the album is the way the pop-melodies combine with impactful lyrics that have the ability to grab you right in the gut. For instance, on "The City" (arguably the Plan's best song), Morrison sings over a wailing synth and guitar melody:

Sometimes I stand on my roof at night
And watch, as something seems to happen somewhere else
I feel like the breeze will pick me up and carry me away
Out and over this iridescent grid
Up and away from the bar fights and neon lights
Out and away from everything that makes me what I am
But I’m not unsympathetic
I see why you left
There’s no one to know
There’s nothing to do
The city’s been dead
Since you’ve been gone.
Oh I never had just whatever it is you want, baby
And I really tried, I tried with all my might—it made me crazy
To try to figure out what it is I’ve done wrong every time
When everything I love, everything I hold dear
Heads out sometime
And all I ever say now is good-bye.

These lyrics convey the sort of emotion that every emo band tries (and fails) to convey in their songs. They way Morrison sings them is with passion, but not with melodrama. He sings it straight (which is also the reason why Whitney Houston's rendition of the National Anthem is the best one ever recorded, it's just the melody with no frills and all passion). It's hard not to be affected by almost any of these lyrics, especially when coupled with the beautiful melodies. Another great example of Morrison's lyricism is from "Superpowers" off of their last album, Change. Morrison sings:

I have seen the world's most beautiful women undress in ordinary solitude
I have fallen asleep in the shift of distant satin
I have watched the rich risk it all for 15 minutes in a Heathrow bathroom
I have shuddered as an unseen mouth slid down my spine every night

I have seized with the ice cold rage of a lover betrayed, half a million miles away
I have cried so hard for hours and not known why, I never do
I've been knocked down flat by joy that makes my face pulse like a sugar high
I've been cornered by the screams of a body as it freed itself of its mind

But it's not a depressing album. It is a fun "summer album" after all. It's more like Morrison is putting his arm around you and saying "Listen man, fuck all the bad times that ever happened, we're going to start over right now and have a good time doing it". Then you and Travis fly to heaven to party. If you do not own Emergency and I, I sincerely implore you to get it. Or at the very least find it on Limewire or Soulseek or a bit torrent. It's awesome.

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