The only chore that goes along with being into the Dismemberment Plan -- a Washington, D.C., outfit that in about three years has gone from being the oddity of the remarkably goal-oriented D.C. punk scene to perhaps the most creative underground guitar band in the country -- is deciding which to admire more: Do you go for the group's airtight mastery of form or singer/guitarist/lyricist Travis Morrison's handle on a narrative virility that is very much the essence of being a young person with more questions than answers?
Change, the band's new album and the follow-up to 1999's astounding Emergency & I, makes that choice more difficult than ever. As on Emergency & I, Morrison concerns himself mostly throughout Change with the falling apart of the things around him: relationships, traditions, habits, expectations. But where most of the introverted indie-rock dudes around him essay the same dissolution with an eye on catharsis -- a noble, well-worn attempt to find in music a release they cannot in real life -- Morrison comes at the problem from a different angle, telling stories of emotional upheaval in a voice filled with distance and reserve. It's an unusual effect, one Morrison admits to lifting at least in part from Steely Dan, two jazz geeks who told the story of the '70s from the point of view of the pimps and junkies and creeps keeping the pleasure machine in business for the 9-to-5 types in search of -- you guessed it -- catharsis.
See, it's complicated, and it only works because the music provides the necessary counterpoint this kind of storytelling demands. Just as Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's studio pros constructed sparkling jazz/rock settings that were as note-perfect as their characters weren't, the Plan shows on Change that it's simply mastered resourceful, crisply melodic guitar pop, like Weezer if Rivers Cuomo cared about living up to his potential, or Elvis Costello if he still gave in to his "Radio Radio" urges, or any number of other lame comparisons that only serve to mildly illustrate what a unique voice it is this band has mustered using such everyday tools. That's not an easy job -- just ask Cuomo -- but with this kind of rarefied artistic realization lying in wait, the Dismemberment Plan isn't an easy band to like.