By Hollister Dixon and Gabriel Mathews
The Dismemberment Plan – 12/8/13 – Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR
The first time I heard about Dismemberment Plan was in an interview with Ben Gibbard. “Half the fun of seeing Dismemberment Plan was wondering what they were gonna fuck up next.” The sentiment stuck with me until I began listening to D-Plan, digging my way into Emergency & I, which still is – admittedly – the only one of their records to stick for me (the others are good albums, however). They broke up before I ever got the chance to see them, but there would always be something alluring about a band like The Plan: reckless, insane, stream-of-consciousness, heartfelt, and balls-to-the-wall talented – and they were all of that at all times. And then, something remarkable happened: the band got back together, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Emergency & I, but then decided they would just stay together. When asked about new music, they said, “We’re not planning a new record, but we’re doing these shows and taking it day to day after that,” but then they did make a new record, this year’s pretty terrible and universally panned Uncanney Valley. Terrible as it was, it gave them a very good reason to make a full go of touring – which brought them to Portland, at long last.
First and foremost, Telekinesis were the opener. Michael Lerner’s drum-forward (that’s not figurative, his drumkit was on the edge of the stage) Seattle band were the opener, and from the get go, I realized that I’d made a terrible mistake by sleeping on the band. They played a good 35 minutes, and throughout, I remembered the fact that I had their newest album, Dormarion, sitting on my hard drive at home – and I had never once listened to it. What the hell was I thinking? Despite knowing almost nothing about the band, other than the fact that it was an awesome performance, I couldn’t shake the fact that it was one of the tightest opening acts I’ve ever seen.
“We learned something new today, you guys,” Travis Morrison said, taking his place at a small synthesizer at the front of the stage. “If you put regular gasoline… in a diesel van… it stops running.” Without much time to react, the band launched into the unbeatable “Doing the Stand Still,” which was just enough to whip the crowd into a complete frenzy – just before barrelling head-on into “The City”, which really got things moving. It wasn’t until a few songs later, during the spectacularly unhinged “Girl O’Clock,” that I realized that Ben Gibbard had completely duped me. Rather than having the esteemed pleasure of watching a bunch of dudes fucking up and failing to apologize for messing shit up, all I got was a bunch of dudes at the top of their game, proving that they can not only play like motherfuckers, but play like motherfuckers in exactly the right way to get the crowd unnaturally excited. Despite the – ahem – lukewarm reception to Uncanney Valley, the songs resonated more in this setting, blended in with a soup that relied more heavily on Emergency & I than the album they were promoting, as well as those old gems like “The Ice of Boston” – though more on that one in a few. In fact, the energy in the room was palpable enough that, even if everyone in the room hated the new material, it would have been impossible to tell.
This can all be chalked up to the fact that, yes, these guys are stars now. It has been ten years (and 6 months) since The Plan were last in Portland (their last PDX show was June 9th, 2003, at the now-defunct Meow Meow, to be exact), and in that ten years (and 6 months), the band have realized their full potential, and they’ve brought it all to the table for the revitalized D-Plan. Rarely am I ever forced to rewire the connections in my brain to disassociate connections like “The Dismemberment Plan” and “sloppy-ass band”, but, around halfway through 20 song set, I realized that those old connections needed to go, and the new ones needed to step in – all soundtracked by the temperamental Emergency & I cut “You Are Invited,” a song that only explodes for a few moments, but never stops being brilliant. That feeling held on throughout the rest of the show, right on through to “OK, Joke’s Over” – which, this evening, included splashes of Kendrick Lamar and “Royals” by Lorde.
But, that wasn’t it. They still had a monstrous three-song encore to perform. They began with “Waiting”, the very first new D-Plan song after the long drought, which paired well with the rest of the show. Morrison brought two people up to model their merch, which in turn started the traditional stage-surge for “The Ice of Boston”, which inspired more hugs than I’ve ever seen in one place. Finally, as if that weren’t enough, they sliced their way through “What Do You Want Me To Say?”, a song who’s chorus was sung loudly (and drunkenly) by the crowd during the pre-encore break. It was a madhouse, to say the least.
So, where does that leave us? It’s a weird thing to be disappointed that all you got from a band was an incredibly tight and impeccable show by a band that you love. Looking back at it now, though, I can’t help but feel like I would never trade that show for any of the more chaotic shows that came in the band’s salad days. I can’t wait to see how they perform the next time they come back into town. I’ll be there.
The Dismemberment Plan – 12/12/13 – Fonda Theater, Los Angeles, CA
By Gabriel Mathews
There’s a Chuck Klosterman essay about Rivers Cuomo as a songwriter, which essentially validates the dude’s entire (and entirely mediocre-to-shitty) post-Pinkerton output as simply continuing his wholly unselfcoscious project of saying exactly what’s on his mind. The argument goes like this: The Blue Album and Pinkerton were excellent and relatable albums for alienated twenty-somethings because Cuomo was, at the time of their writing, an alienated twenty-something; his Green and onward work has continued his perfectly honest expression of his own feelings, but now he’s a a forty-year-old lech who actually does want to live in Beverly Hills and you’re regressive for continuing to relate to the first two records and to call Weezer’s newer material out as shit.
I think a similar reading can be applied to The Dismemberment Plan’s first post-reunion record, Uncanney Valley, which came out earlier this year. I say this because, well, we’ve got to talk about Uncanney Valley for a minute if we’re going to acknowledge any D-Plan show that occurred after its release. Travis Morrison wrote two of the best albums ever about being an isolated young person, 1999’s legendary Emergency & I and 2001’s hideously underrated Change, before the band broke up and Morrison released a couple of universally panned solo records. The Plan reunited a couple years ago to play some shows, and apparently gelled well enough, twelve years on from Change, to make a record. Unfortunately, this record is their Make Believe, or maybe even their Red Album. Which means it’s pretty bad. If E&I was Morrison’s Pinkerton, which it was, then Change was an album Rivers Cuomo never managed to make—essentially Pinkerton a few years down the line, less horny, less bitter, but still very much alone. Change is a subtle record, in a way that nothing The Plan had done before ever was. Us fans could have reasonably expected Morrison’s reunion with his band to bring him back around, and maybe make an awesome, even more subtle and insightful extension from Change. Spoiler alert: Uncanney Valley is not that album. The refrain to it’s first song is: “Like a fat nun on drugs / Drowning in hugs / You know that I love the lovin’.” Morrison’s Cuomo quotient almost surpasses Rivers himself on this record, and it’s kind of really sad, if you’re the kind of person who wants a miserable person to stay miserable forever so they can keep making good art. Which I kind of am.
Okay, so, the show. Telekinesis opened, and were pretty solid. I don’t have a lot to say about them. Frontman/drummer/mastermind Michael Benjamin Lerner was fairly impressive simply for being simultaneously a good drummer and a good singer, which strikes me as very hard to pull off. His Seattle/Portland-culled live band was really solid, and the band ran through some really solid pop-punk songs that ended up kind of bleeding together. Their stage presence was actually really great, though, with Lerner initiating a couple of Q&A sessions with the audience, and being generally adorable.
Anyway, who cares? No one was at this show for Telekinesis. We went to see The Dismemberment Plan. I didn’t know until Morrison mentioned it that this was the last show of the tour, but in retrospect I think LA really benefitted, as their set was, I think, about three or four songs longer than other sets on this tour. As the curtain rose, the band immediately called us all out by jumping into “Do The Standing Still,” an ode to everyone’s favorite indie rock dance. The Fonda crowd by and large didn’t follow Morrison’s lead and boogie like it was the last night on earth (that man’s pelvis is a creature of its own), but some of us did get down, and it was rad. They immediately segued into Change highlight “Time Bomb,” and proceeded to play a super great, super long set that did a commendable job of balancing the Uncanney material with favorites from E&I, lesser favorites from Change, and a few weird tracks for the die hards from their first two records, “!” and The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified.
I have to admit that the new songs definitely shone more here than they do on record. This could be attributable to the Fonda’s always excellent sound, or the band’s utterly infectious enthusiasm for the show. While guitarist/keyboardist Jason Caddell remained pretty reserved, the rest of the band was going apeshit almost the entire time. Morrison never lost his manic grin, and bassist Eric Axelson grooved hard all night. Axelson and drummer Joe Easley are probably one of the best rhythm sections of the past twenty years, definitely the best all-lefty rhythm section of the past twenty years. Easley is a maniac, incredibly talented, ferocious, and able to sing along with his favorite lines while playing even The Plan’s most notoriously complex beats.
One mid-set highlight was Change closer “Ellen & Ben” into Emergency closer “Back and Forth,” which made for a surprisingly moving pair of conclusions thrust into the middle of a set. Morrison is an adept vocalist who bounces around between singing his songs straight and switching them up rhythmically without ever showing the seams. Sometimes he was almost rapping, as on deep cuts “Bra” and “The Dismemberment Plan Get Rich.” I found myself shockingly into “Living In Song,” the Uncanney song about Madonna’s art collection. This probably had a lot to do with Axelson’s rad bass/cuira riffing. The dude played with a goddamn cuira in his fret-hand. It was nice, also, that while the new songs are pretty straight-forward, older, spazzier tracks like “Gyroscope” proved that The Plan can still make incredibly complex musical moves and pull them off effortlessly.
Towards the end of their set, the band convened onstage to switch up the setlist, apologizing to their tech people for their spontaneity. They threw in “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer,” one of the better songs off the new record, and then concluded the main set with the now-standard closer “OK, Joke’s Over,” from their debut. Morrison has a habit of turning this jam into a medley of recent songs, popular and not, and this iteration certainly did not disappoint—he did the entire first verse and chorus from St. Vincent’s three-day-old “Birth In Reverse,” (How of-the-moment!) followed by a beautiful rendition of Lorde’s ubiquitous “Royals.” They then returned (very quickly, these things are becoming such jokes) for a five-song encore.
The encore opened with awful Uncanney closer “Let’s All Go To The Dogs Tonight,” which had me a little nervous that we weren’t going to get the payoff I was hoping for. The drunk dude next to me who looked exactly like the Comic Book Guy kept shouting for “8.5 Minutes,” but he didn’t get what he was hoping for either. Instead, we got a couple of Change cuts, “Following Through” and “The Other Side,” both of which were played with skill and poise, and then the requisite one-two punch of “The Ice Of Boston” and “What Do You Want Me To Say?” It’s become tradition at Plan shows to get up on stage for “Boston,” but Morrison had some bad news—the stage is real old and fragile. “You could all get up here and it would be a lot of fun, but we’d all die. Which maybe would be worth it, but let’s not find out!” Even without the stage jumping, the song was a blast, as was being a part of “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO SAYYYYY??!???” as sung by an entire venue of drunk Plan fanatics. The band left the stage gracefully, and we dispersed.
Was this a life-changing experience? I kind of hoped it would be. Over the past several months, Emergency & I and, to an even greater degree, Change have become crucial pieces of my personal soundtrack, and I thought that maybe seeing The Dismemberment Plan live would somehow validate my feelings. And it sort of did. But the set was a bit bogged down by crappy new numbers, and even during the emotional peaks of “Back and Forth,” “Time Bomb,” “What Do You Want Me To Say?” and the rest of the classics, Morrison seemed very removed from the subject matter, and it was hard to forget about the fact that he’s now contently married and doesn’t actually feel all this shit anymore.
All that said, the show’s most poignant moment rested in what is perhaps the Plan’s most poignant song. “You Are Invited” functioned as the set’s peak, as everyone but Morrison left the stage after the first verse, only to come back for a resounding reunion that established, in very simple terms, their love for us as a crowd, and for each other, and for the process of making music. If we’re honest, “You Are Invited” is proof that Morrison has always written incredibly dumb lyrics. The song’s central fantasy of a universal invitation is just plain silly, and it includes lyrical blunders such as “There was no time or location / There was really no info at all / No date, no place, no time, no RSVP.” Dude, you’re repeating yourself. But the thing is, even if Morrison is Riversing like crazy, it doesn’t matter in the live setting, where the band is having such a great time that you can’t not feel invited for all time.