Fugazi’s 14 years together notwithstanding, you can’t say that longevity, artistic or otherwise, defines many bands that have come out of the punk scene in the nation’s capital, where homegrown talent tends to burn out soon after the match is lit. That said, there isn’t a more on-fire punk-inspired band than D.C.’s durable Dismemberment Plan: guitarist-singer Travis Morrison, guitarist Jason Caddell, bassist Eric Axelson, and drummer Joe Easley. Like the Police during Sting & Co.’s early days, the guys in the Dis Plan take the energy of punk and turn it into lightning bolts of stylishly constructed pop, relying equally on their considerable musical skills and their love of raw power.
Change, the Dis Plan’s fourth full-length, is the sound of a band all grown up, four talented punks fully transformed into brainy and mature musicians. In spite of the vagaries of the modern-day music biz, these guys should be making compelling and intriguing CDs for years to comeunless Morrison decides to be like Sting and take the adult part of his career too seriously; cornball duets with Puff Daddy and tantric sex in the rain forest certainly wouldn’t suit him.
It wasn’t always this way, of course: When the band debuted with a jittery 7-inch EP, 1994’s Can We Be Mature?, and then followed up with the spirited 1995 LP !, the answer to its coming-out question seemed like a resolute no. The Dis Plan was content to perform an agitated form of math rock that was popular at the time, mixing time-signature tomfoolery with sarcastic, frustrated lyrics. Can We Be Mature? and ! are appealing records, but they failed to indicate that the band would do anything more than preach to the converted: wallet-chain punks in gas-station shirts trying to figure out what to do once they graduated from college.
In the two years between ! and 1997’s The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified, both for the D.C. indie DeSoto, the band chose to give up most of its jarring time changes and realized that sometimes eight chords in a pop song are just as good as 12. Terrified wasn’t a complete departure from !, but it did show certain powers that be that the band had a budding commercial appeal: The CD landed the Dis Plan with Interscope for about a sneeze, and the major label released a 1998 EP that featured Terrified’s central track: the funny, smart “The Ice of Boston,” a tale of New Year’s Eve, a failing relationship, nudity, drunkenness, and this spoken revelation: “Woke up at 3 a.m. with the radio on, that Gladys Knight and the Pips song on/About how she’d rather live in his world with him than in her own world alone/And I laid there, head spinning, trying to sleep/And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Gladys, girl, I love you, but ohget a life!’”
But after all that major-label-merger mania, Interscope dropped the Dis Plan before the band could unload its third album, Emergency & I (“They May Need to Amputate,” 1/29/99). But the major’s loss was DeSoto’s gain: Emergency & I was one of the best albums of 1999. The Dis Plan no longer sounded like a superskilled punk band; it now sounded like a superskilled band, period, one capable of making music without genre trappings, one capable of blending elements of punk, dub, and synth-pop into an individualistic sound. Emergency & I’s production, which took advantage of major-label money, is full and biting, highlighting the band’s innate musicality without softening its edgy energy. Standout track “You Are Invited” encapsulates the band’s catholic reach: a combination of drum-machined verses and guitar-blasted choruses, with clever lyrics that deftly define the ambivalence that comes along with party invites (that is, feeling bad if you aren’t invited, hating to go once you are).
Like its now-antiquated moniker, which reeks of death metal, the Dis Plan’s latest album also has a misleading name: Change doesn’t abandon the formula of Emergency & I so much as build on it; it’s calmer than its predecessor but no less captivating. Emergency & I is a monument of inspired arrangements, tight playing, and memorable melodies, and Change easily stands beside it in the pantheon of great albums.
The Dis Plan’s songs have a compositional depth rare in pop, and the crafty arrangements provide layer upon layer of interest. You can listen to Change 20 timesas I didand not notice until the last spin that “The Other Side” is drum ‘n’ bass inspired: The bass line is fragmented and descending, the ambient slide guitar soothing, the rhythms skittering. But here Morrison sings as if the calmest, most basic pop chords and rhythms were surrounding him, and he invites you so far into the melodic core of the song that you lose track of the relative chaos surrounding him. The only band that has done the drum ‘n’ bass-gone-live-pop with this much success and certainty is the defunct U.K. outfit Long Fin Killie, a group that the Dis Plan evokes in its musical breadth. Like its Scottish fellow traveler, the Dis Plan understands how to use harmonic coloration (the key modulation from the verse to the chorus of the dance-poppy “Superpowers”), rhythmic diversity (the use of dubby beats in the verses that contrast the chorus’s rock pounding in “The Face of the Earth”), and tonal contrasts (the acoustic-guitar-and-sound-effects ballad “Automatic”) to give its music a multilayered richness.
But the most salient part of the Dis Plan is Morrison, whose passionate voicepart standards crooner, part wild-boy yelpgives the music its melodic and emotional center. His vox also gives the songs momentum, which allows his wickedly agile bandmates free rein to piece together rhythms, sampled sounds, and melodic lines that wouldn’t seem to relate to each other otherwise but somehow coalesce into catchy gems. Morrison started in Dis Plan as a yippy shouter, delivering lyrics in rapid-fire chants and taunts, but his melodic voice matured along with the bandso much so that he sounds strikingly like Dave Matthews on Change’s opener, the New Wavy “Sentimental Man.” But repeated listens have lessened the shock, and on the rest of the CD, he sings (speaks, shouts) in a tenor that sounds almost cocky about its ability to lead the band through well-crafted musical mazes.
Meanwhile, Morrison’s lyrics are comical and bitter, sardonic and sharp, as on the bouncy, singsong tale of “Ellen and Ben,” a jokey, sparkling number about a couple who once can’t keep their hands off each other and then part ways: “I heard they broke up loudly at a wedding/And never saw each other again/It seems kind of weird/They made each other feel like they could die/But they couldn’t stay the slightest of friends.” “Time Bomb” is even better, briefly showing off the Dis Plan’s punky roots: Over a smash-up of down-strummed guitars, Morrison fumes, “I am a time bomb and I only live in that one moment in which you die.”
Like the rest of Change, “Time Bomb” is a keeper, but this sort of lyrical aggression is now the Dis Plan’s exception rather than its rule. CP
The Dismemberment Plan performs Dec. 28 and 29 at the Black Cat, 1831 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.