The Dismemberment Plan’s ‘Uncanney Valley’ is the sound of a grown-up band

October 18, 2013

When the Dismemberment Plan called it quits in 2003 after 10 years and four albums, it was one of the biggest bands in Washington. Hundreds braved the inevitable summer thunderstorms for an aborted "final" show at Fort Reno, and then packed the 9:30 Club for an "official" farewell.

The band's indie punk, influenced by New Wave and R&B, got crowds dancing at shows -- a rarity in Washington at the time, as evidenced by the Plan's sardonic song "Do the Standing Still" -- and singer Travis Morrison's geeky, urban onstage persona and overly literate, overly caffeinated wordplay were as important as the band's propulsive polyrhythms.


HANDOUT IMAGE: The Dismemberment Plan will perform in the Washington, DC area. Eric Axelson, Joe Easley , Travis Morrison, Jason Caddell. Image provided by Partisan Records. Photo by Shervin Lainez

Morrison moved on to a solo career. Bassist Eric Axelson formed Maritime with two former members of the Promise Ring. They got day jobs: Morrison became a programmer with washingtonpost.com; drummer Joe Easley went back to school and became an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The band reunited for two fundraising shows in 2007, then again for a handful of 2011 concerts to promote the re-release of its 1999 apex, "Emergency & I." A few festival dates followed. Each time, the band dismissed plans to record another album. As recently as August 2012, Easley told NASA's "Outside Goddard" Web feature,"There is only so much touring you can do on an old record, and I'd be pretty surprised if we made a new one. We're all in established jobs and starting families."

That's why it was such a surprise when word leaked about "Uncanney Valley," the band's new album and the first since 2001's "Changes." So what, uh, changed?

"Our minds," Morrison says with a laugh by phone from Brooklyn, where he lives. "When we were practicing for the shows for 'Emergency and I,' we started jamming more, and we really liked the spontaneous riffs and loops that we had. And when those shows were over, we thought, 'Why don't we just keep playing?' Slowly but surely, we saw things coalescing into songs, and it felt good."

What came out of those jam sessions was a different Dismemberment Plan from the one behind jittery stickup story "13th and Euclid," the stuttering squeals of "Girl O'Clock" and the percolating beats of late-night tale "Back and Forth." The new album's gently winsome "Lookin'" is the aural equivalent of the goofy smile you give your new spouse. (Coincidentally, Morrison, 40, got married last year.) On "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer," Morrison sings over a smooth '90s indie-rock track, "Daddy was a real good dancer / Until he had me / And then he threw his dancing shoes away." It's as if the band has -- perish the thought -- grown up.

Morrison says critics have repeatedly described the album's vibe with the same adjectives: "It does seem that I hear the word 'contented' a lot, I hear the word 'happier,' " he says. "I suppose it is those things. Why not?"

To some, this new attitude won't be a surprise: The Plan has always seemed like an old soul. "Spider in the Snow" looks back at a K Street temp job with the crushing observation "The only thing worse than bad memories is no memories at all," while "Ellen and Ben" tells the tale of a couple who meet at a house party and wind up lying in bed watching "The McLaughin Group."

"Uncanney Valley" is full of these moments: The tension of a mid-life crisis, for example, bubbles through the taut bassline and sharp synths of "Mexico City Christmas."

"[It's] about that moment a lot of people have in their early 30s when that bohemian dream just totally falls apart," Morrison says. " 'Am I going to keep doing this? This is totally unsustainable. I don't know if I can book this avant-garde nonprofit jazz club until I'm 80.' "

He breaks out in a cackle, then straightens up. "That's a very alarming moment. You have to take stock of a lot of things, and you have to question your values. . . . I think there's stuff on the album I don't think I would have talked about when I was 23 or 24."

That sentiment should resonate with at least part of the band's audience. At reunion shows, the crowd has been split between nostalgic 30-somethings who saw the band the first time around and ever-younger fans who discovered "Emergency & I" through fawning Pitchfork reviews or by listening to the back catalogue on Spotify. (Morrison wryly noted on Facebook last month that the band has "identified a certain female element of our demographic as 'post-dip-dye hoodies but pre-Talbot's.' Coming up with band gear for them is not easy.")

Of course, change is never easy. The band's new approach has been accompanied by criticism that the Plan is abandoning the style than won so many fans. "Uncanney Valley" lacks the quirky time signatures and edgy lyrics that characterized the band's early work, and synths are far more prevalent than guitars. The tracks "Go and Get It" and "Living in Song," among others, are far less dynamic than 1990s favorites "Tonight We Mean It" or "OK, Joke's Over," but Morrison is keen to stress that the new material isn't boring - it's just different.

"I'm starting to gather that everyone has different views of the Dismemberment Plan, especially in retrospect," he says. "There's some kind of platonic Dismemberment Plan that everyone's comparing this record to, and I'm not entirely sure what the makeup of this platonic Dismemberment Plan is. . . . Some people are like, 'Those were my emo heroes!,' and other people are like, 'Man, remember the song they did with the trombone?' I can't really argue with either of those. The evidence is out there for both."

Either way, if you love the Dismemberment Plan, you probably should see the band this weekend as tours will become more infrequent due to family and job demands.

"I love being onstage maybe the most I ever have in my life," Morrison says. "I can't tell you how excited I am for these shows. Then there is touring, and that's a different subject. It's like an eternal road trip. That's a beautiful thing at a certain stage in life, and I'm not at that stage in life anymore."

He pauses.

"The eternal road trip was fun - until it wasn't."

THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN
Appearing Saturday at 8 p.m. with Deleted Scenes and Sunday at 7 p.m. with Paint Branch at the 9:30 Club. $25.

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