Show tunes aren't cool -- they don't rock. But like a handful of bands long gone before, Washington, D.C., quartet the Dismemberment Plan frantically bashes out a form of theatrical pop music that's perched between its punk roots and classic Broadway musicals. Singer/guitarist Travis Morrison's energetic and downright nerdy-sounding voice -- recalling a cheerful talk-radio host -- permeates every twisted, jagged sound the band emits. That's a good thing, and perhaps the most distinct and powerful aspect of the Dismemberment Plan's modus operandi.
On any of the band's three albums, four singles and various compilations, the foursome strolls through an odd assortment of genres and sounds: Gang of Four post-punk, proto-disco funk, spastic new-wave gurgles and rupturing drum & bass beats. But, with the release last fall of the group's catchiest, most complex and accomplished work to date, Emergency & I (on D.C.-based DeSoto Records), the Dismemberment Plan became popular darlings to the indie-rock scene after having been dumped from an extremely brief tenure on Interscope Records.
The group's sound may at times lean toward the geek-pop of They Might Be Giants, but the Dismemberment Plan offers much more enduring and powerful songwriting. Throughout Emergency & I, guitarist/keyboardist Jason Caddell counters Morrison's chopping guitar lines with chunky barre chords and inventive flourishes. Bassist/keyboardist Eric Axelson plucks bopping and slinky notes that lock into the frenzied battery and sly syncopations of drummer Joe Easley. The approach results in clever, intricate, genre-bending sounds, but the most compelling aspect of the band's songs is the way Morrison's literate sensibilities guide the music.
Morrison has a unique talent for combining an expressive and theatrical lyrical approach similar to that of Broadway musicals with the band's ragged post-punk sounds. "I wanted to be a writer when I was little," he says. "What I do now requires a lot of discipline, because you've got to get to the point. And God knows I wander enough as it is. It's a form that requires economy, which I really like."
Rather than try to hammer rock and cabaret into an operatic and excessively orchestrated morass, the Dismemberment Plan simply creates rock music that's carefully built around the lyricist's dramatic prose. "I think rock musicals are a terrible idea," says Morrison. "Rock is really adolescent and self-involved, and the whole idea of Broadway is that it is theater and made by people collectively putting on an organized show."
Scraping together unusual observations of both commonplace events and monumental occurrences, Morrison's lyrics read with the same sense of hopeful despair and despairing hope that Kurt Vonnegut's work contains. There is a sense of tragic comedy to most of his songs, in which a first-person narrator may vacillate between a fixation on trivial details and an indifference to the utter chaos of the universe. On "Spider in the Snow," Morrison sings: "Different scene outside your window now/Same VCR, same cats/Different people at the very same job/Similar alley, the trash goes out on a Tuesday now/You got to make a note about that." Or, on "You Are Invited," Morrison spins a metaphorical tale of learning to become assertive by carrying an imaginary missive that certifies the right to act: "I got it in the mail one morning/There was no return address/Just my name in gold leaf on the front/But it said, You are invited/By anyone to do anything/You are invited for all time."
Morrison realizes that his band's interest in such un-rock & roll styles may be hard for some listeners to swallow. "I like listening to forms that have always valued craftsmanship," he explains. "Maybe, to an extent, that would turn off the average dyed-in-the-wool rock fan." He suggests that much of the best-loved popular music is the work of songwriting teams. "The Beatles are a classic example. John Lennon and Paul McCartney came from very different mindsets, but they were able to approach the same idea from different angles," he says. "The Gershwin brothers wrote together. Irving Berlin worked with all kinds of people. It's not so good when people called singer/songwriters write these really pert and predictable tunes with their acoustic guitars."
The Dismemberment Plan prefer to write songs as a collaborative effort, often building the melody and rhythm around the phrasing of Morrison's lengthy and rhythmically awkward verse passages. Perhaps this accounts for the extended periods between the band's full-length releases. Laughing, Morrison says, "Four young guys trying to agree on one thing? It's really hard. You should see us try to order a pizza."
The fact that DeSoto welcomed the band back after Interscope cut it loose might seem to run counter to indie rock's anti-sellout standards. But DeSoto owners Kim Coletta and Bill Barbot are all too familiar with the perils of leaping from popularity in the indie coterie into the machinations of a mainstream major label: They learned their lesson the hard way when their former band, Jawbox, left the popular touchstone punk label Dischord Records for Atlantic in 1993. After releasing two strong but uncommercial albums for the major, Jawbox was unceremoniously dropped. When they found themselves back at the punk underground's doorstep, Coletta and Barbot decided their best option was releasing their band's records themselves.
DeSoto expanded and released several new records between 1996 and 1998. The second band the label introduced to the world was the Dismemberment Plan. Since then, the band has grown to become one of the nation's top indie-rock outfits. Although the group's sound was quirky and perky from the very beginning, it wasn't until the quartet's third year that its debut album, the succinctly titled !, was released on DeSoto. The album's punctuated rhythms and spastic sounds only hinted at things to come; 1997's follow-up, Is Terrified, restrained the chirping synths and random rhythmic shifts to accentuate Morrison's growing talent for lyrical storytelling. Still, the young band had yet to fully develop its own personality, aside from its reputation as perky-punky outcasts.
Soon after, the Dismemberment Plan was courted by Interscope and finally signed a sturdy two-album deal (under the careful auspices of the band's manager, Coletta) that provided it with a guaranteed advance of $50,000 per album. The group began work on what was supposed to be its major-label debut, recorded by former Jawbox vocalist/guitarist J. Robbins and Chad Clark (of D.C.'s Smart Went Crazy). But then, as a result of last year's surprise merger and shakeup as Universal streamlined its stable of labels (which included Interscope, DGC and A&M), Emergency & I was shelved and the Dismemberment Plan was released from its contract.
So the band received a hefty advance to record a lavishly produced and near-flawless album that it gave to another label to release. Morrison believes Interscope isn't concerned that the Dismemberment Plan is releasing the album -- which, technically, Universal owns -- contending that Emergency & I is the fortunate outcome of what he calls "massive corporate amnesia." "Probably only one person who still works there knows we were ever on the label, other than the lawyers," says Morrison. "I think (Interscope's) priorities are just so different now, and things were thrown into such disarray there that we never did settle the deal (to release the album on DeSoto). We just put it out. And I really don't think they care. We were just this tiny little band with a tiny little deal."
While the dates on the band's current tour aren't the first in support of Emergency & I, this is the Dismemberment Plan's first headlining tour since the album's release. Over the course of the group's seven-year existence, it has slowly gathered a strong fanbase around the country as word of its energetic performances circulates among like-minded individuals: a community of people who share the Dismemberment Plan's sense of weirdness. Or, as Morrison puts it: "We've gotten 'em one dorko at a time."
The Dismemberment Plan performs at the Rocket Bar on Saturday, April 15.