There’s a song on the monumental third album by Washington, D.C. quartet the Dismemberment Plan that’s called “What Do You Want Me to Say?”. Those words are staring at me as I write this, suffering from perhaps a little bit of writer’s block. What more can be said about 1999’s Emergency & I that hasn’t already been said elsewhere? The album has been canonized to death, so it seems like no more tributes can be added to this lovingly reissued two-LP set, put out on audiophile 180-gram vinyl (and boy can I say that Barsuk Records did a great job, as my copy of this record sounds ever so immaculate—no pops or nicks or nothing), complete with an oral history of all involved, some photographs of the era, properly sequenced cover art in a gatefold sleeve, and a lyrics sheet.
Remember those Maxell commercials where a butler pops in one of their tapes into a stereo for some dude in a plush chair, only to have various items in the room actually get blown away from the speakers past the guy? That was the kind of effect that Emergency & I had on me the very first time I dropped my Ortofon cartridge into its grooves. I was stunned. Words failed me, as they do now, to render the epic scope and outright raw honesty of this album. In fact, Emergency & I is so memorable, right down to its coy and pensive lyrics, that I actually found myself singing along with parts of it on only my second spin—something I don’t think I’ve ever done before. There’s that old cliché that a band, or an album, can certainly change your life. I’m not sure if Emergency & I is that kind of record—a part of me feels almost too old for it now as an embittered, crusty, frustrated, single, and lonely 35-year-old—but I can definitely report this: it is a damn fine artistic statement by any standard, and if you like angular art-punk music of any stripe, you should (if you haven’t done so already) hunt down a turntable, proceed to your nearest independent music retailer, and plunk down the change for this record. You’ll thank me later.
That said, I have to admit that I was initially a bit leery (and there might be some of you who don’t have the album who feel the same way) about picking Emergency & I up. The reason? I’m of an age that I definitely recall Pitchfork‘s savage beating of a review that gave frontman Travis Morrison’s 2004 solo album, Travistan, released after the Dismemberment Plan’s break-up, a big fat goose egg. Several college stations refused to play the album and some record stores refused to stock it—all on the basis of that sole review. The stoning of Travistan by Pitchfork is considered to be the tipping point where the webzine became the de facto tastemaker for indie rock hipsters, and, in my mind, it was a pretty memorable event. The review pretty much destroyed Morrison’s career, as he would only go on to release one more record before calling it a day and retiring from music—that is, of course, until the D-Plan, as the band is referred to by fans, reunited for a few shows to support this re-release.
Pitchfork‘s berating of Travistan was a bit of a schizoid reaction, too, considering that the webzine had originally given Emergency & I a 9.6 out of 10 ranking, and placed it at No. 16 on its list of the best albums of the 1990s. (Not to be outdone, because I should give props to the web publication that I write for, PopMatters gave Emergency & I a 9 out of 10 upon its initial release, and it wound up making at least one of this webzine’s writers’ Top 10 lists that I know of.) Even with the laurels awarded Emergency & I, there was still that niggling feeling in the back of my cranium. How could a product be so transcendent when one of its makers went on to make something that is, reportedly, outright terrible? Ergo, the first few times that I saw Emergency & I in my local record shop, I walked past it, unsure if the goods were as good as they were said to be. Eventually, however, I caved in, I guess because I hadn’t bought anything in awhile and I was jonesing for a music fix, and I wanted to add something to my collection that would (I hoped) broaden my musical horizons and (I hoped) rock my world. And, boy, did it ever.
There are at least three things that make Emergency & I truly special. First of all, there’s the rhythm section: the bass and drums are completely in organic lockstep without sounding forced or robotic. There’s a whack of different types of percussion on the record, from punk-like tribal pounding to the well-placed use of kitschy drum machines, the latter particularly on “You Are Invited”. Every beat is well placed without a hint of sloppiness and you can dive headlong into the Swiss-watch grooves to be found here. According to the liner notes, co-producer J. Robbins was responsible for keeping the band playing in tempo together, which is a testament to the album’s austere sense of timekeeping.
“You Are Invited”
Second of all, the use of well-placed keyboards made this a stunner. Three of the band members get credited for them on Emergency & I, so you can’t really single out one person, but the keys waft in and out of the proceedings and flex their way right into the music. They’re a major force on album opener “A Life of Possibilities”, on which Morrison sings against some squelchy gurgling without a trace of guitars until some breaks between verses; it’s an arty move that speaks to the group’s fascination with the Talking Heads. Elsewhere, on “The City”, the keys adequately add menace to the background without becoming overbearing, transporting the song into a jaunty rave up. And then there’s “Spider in the Snow”, where a particularly cheap Casio is pushed to the max to make it sound like a Mellotron or even strings without sounding tacky at all. Maybe that’s a product of some brilliant mixing, and the liners point out that this record was knob-twiddled practically to death to achieve the perfect balance between the instrumentation, but this is one rock album where keyboards are not an embarrassment or lessen the impact of the crunching guitars.
“A Life of Possibilities”
Third and lastly, you have Morrison as both a nervous vocalist and profound lyricist. In particular, “You Are Invited” is a showcase for him as he’s strictly backed by only a drum machine for much of the track, aside from a burst of scorching guitars. On it, he comes across as equally earnest and unsure as he unspools a lengthy narrative about being invited to a party, going and feeling out of sorts, even though his presence is appreciated by at least one (ex-significant) other in the room. Then there’s “What Do You Want Me To Say?”, where he seems jittery and on edge, warbling his way through the song—and with good reason. He got a phone call from his girlfriend, who was calling to break up with him, right in the middle of the recording session. His delivery, in fact, reminds me a little of Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip, which may strike you as an odd comparison for those of you reading this in Canada. Morrison has got that certain tic in his vocal prowess here that’s remarkably similar to Downie’s, and there are also moments in the proceedings—particularly during the full-band portion of “You Are Invited”—where the group shares similar bluesy alt-rock noodlings to the Hip; if you close your eyes, you can barely hear the difference between the two. But I digress.
An argument can be made that Emergency & I is more timely and relevant in the year 2011 than it was in 1999 for a number of reasons—yes, you can take that comment to mean that this LP has certainly aged well. For one, when Morrison sings, “Red wire: Right temple / Black wire: Left temple” on “Memory Machine”, he might as well have presaged the whole social media phenomenon by about ten years, where everyone is connected to Facebook or Twitter like it’s an extension of their own humanity. Similarly, “What Do You Want Me to Say?” opens with the portending line “I lost my membership card to the human race,” again gazing forward to the feeling of disconnectedness in today’s computer age where everyone is seemingly linked in to everyone else, yet not part of something, a community.
Photo: Dave Holloway
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