All photos: Farrah Skeiky
There’s a longstanding tradition within writing that you approach your subject, whatever it may be, with as much objectivity as possible. Sportswriters don’t clap in the press box, critics (at least the decent ones) strive to avoid prejudice, investigative journalists bear scrutiny towards anything and every thing they cover. “Be honest, and unmerciful,” Phillip Seymour Hoffman says as music criticism’s patron saint Lester Bangs in Almost Famous.
Like a Math Club kid trying to talk to the prettiest girl in school, that idiom crumbles when tested against your favorite band from high school. Especially when that band is The Dismemberment Plan. 60s teenage girls had John, Paul, Ringo and George to set their screams to; I had Travis, Eric, Joe, and Jason to go along with my teenage angst and early onset music snobbery. “Oh you listen to Blink-182?” I may or may not have smugly asked classmates rhetorically, “Well you should try listening to a band called The Dismemberment Plan.” (Not to say I somehow had impeccable taste in music as a teenager; a friend gave me a Staind CD, in the same manner I imagine one would gladly give away some accursed relic, after I told him I thought “Outside” and “It’s Been A While” were great songs. Like most people who display some good taste at an advanced age I had older siblings to thank, foisting much of it upon me.)
So basically I felt like an awkward fifteen year old again to a somewhat embarrassing extent when singer/multi-instrumentalist Travis Morrison approached members of the crowd around me to model their new but familiarly designed t-shirts. And had a hard time not dancing to most of their set. And lyrics to a few songs may have found their way through my vocal chords and out of my mouth through sheer force of reflex.
So personal confessions of subjectivity aside, here’s the serious journalistic lede for Friday night’s small show at the Metro Gallery: HOLY FUCKING SHIT THEY’RE PLAYING A LOT OF NEW SONGS AND SAID THEY’D RECORD A NEW ALBUM!*
They started with familiars first. In fact, everything fit the checklist of a standard D-Plan show: small venue, lots of crowd interaction, poor air conditioning, live standards where Travis goes borderline spastic. “What Do You Want Me to Say?”, “Standing Still”, and “Gyroscope” led off the set, interrupted only for some characteristic vamping. “It’s fuckin’ hot in here,” Travis observed to the room. A second or two passed. “You’re fuckin’ hot in here!” Some Dude screamed at the precisely right before the band leapt into “Gyroscope” (Some Dude made a number of appearances in various forms throughout the night, usually shouting song requests or jokes at the band) inducing a giant shit-eating grin on bassist Eric Axelson for the first few bars of one of their more intensely fast songs. It sounded like they had never taken time off. An audience of what looked like mostly old friends and fans mixed with teenaged D-Plan neophytes picked up the last couple bars a cappella, a crowd of eighty or so people singing “If you spin fast enough then maybe the broken pieces of your heart will stay together/But something I see lately makes me doubt it” as they have every time I’ve seen “Gyroscope” performed.
I literally caught myself thinking, “This will be one of those rare shows where I know every song backwards and forwards” a few seconds before some unfamiliar notes popped that thought cloud above my head. Axelson spoke-sang while quickly strumming his bass to anchor a new song that harkened back to ! and when the punk in their sound was less distilled. An impish smirk occupied Travis’ face for the complete first verse. The crowd shivered with applause after the last note, as the realization of a new song crept over everyone. The song is called “White Collar, White Trash” and according to Travis, “is about Northern Virginia, where we grew up.” It was the first of seven new songs performed that night.
I hesitate to cast much judgment on the new stuff after its inaugural public performance. Most anything will feel unvarnished next to songs polished over the course of years, with extra glean from the sentimentality of time. Morrison had to deal with this on his solo albums, the first of which Pitchfork infamously ravaged with a 0.0 rating, and whenever the new album comes out they’ll have to deal with this problem as a group. Several of the songs had the flavor of that solo work with his backing band, the Hellfighters, but better hashed out with the collaboration of old bandmates. The last two played in their initial set sounded the strongest to me: the first of those, which we’ll call “Waiting” (based off of the set list photographer Farrah ganked from the stage, see below) had a definite synth pop feel with dance groove beat. The second, “Lookin’” featured a 12-string guitar and was more contemplative in tone than the others.
There were signs of rust on some of the ‘hits’. Travis fought with a new synthesizer for most of the set. A minute or two before the ode to a couple that showed up at shows less and less while saying hi to no one, “Ellen and Ben”, was spent finding the right button to make that organ-filtered-through-an-Atari sound. “We’ve been playing this song for 45 years!…We got the new one right!” Travis groused lightheartedly. An effect on the scheduled set closer “I Love a Magician” wouldn’t stop on cue, causing guitarist Jason Caddell to double over with laughter until the volume was simply turned down. Like landing a plane or sticking a dismount, getting a looped synthesizer to shut up is apparently the hardest part about using it.
Travis made neurotically nervous comments throughout the show about screwing up again, a Woody Allen of indie rock on stage. Often Some Dude would meet these with a sarcastically toned, “We believe in you Travis!” (or something alone those lines. “MEMORY MACHINE” Some Dude in the front row screamed in between songs, followed by a few seconds of awkward silence. “…We don’t know that one right now”. “Play something from Change!” Some Dude requested imperatively. “We will,” Eric responded, far nicer than many would have, before they did so. This felt familiar—the played up self-deprecation, the sarcastic give and take between audience and band—rust may have been around edges of the music, but their stage banter was at an All-Star level.
And (above missteps aside) in media carminis it may as well have been The Black Cat in 2001. Everything was there. “Back and Forth”, “Girl O’Clock”, “The City”, “Face of the Earth” all sounded like they’d been hermetically sealed since ’03 and released Friday fresh as ever. “You Are Invited’s” was the vector for a number of spazzed out dance infections during the encore, sandwiched in between the final new song and “Ice of Boston”. Sadly, but responsibly given Metro Gallery’s stage size, the band asked for no one to participate in the traditional onstage “Ice of Boston” bum rush. An extended “OK Joke’s Over” finished out the encore strongly.
When covering a sentimental old favorite you can still be objective. But that doesn’t exclude the fact that the band you’re writing about supplied much of the soundtrack to your life between the ages of 15-18.
*“When we write more songs” was the album timeline given by Travis when asked by a Some Dude yelling from the crowd.
Openers Deleted Scenes sounded like the Platonic ideal of an opener for the Dismemberment Plan: eclectic, with a foundation in post-punk. In fact they sounded a bit like a D-Plan that had kept making music past 2003, an ironic thought given the new songs that would litter the headliner’s set. Keep an eye out from them around town, they’re worthy of more space than they’ve received here.
- Deleted Scenes