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October 15, 2013 at 10:24 AM

New Dismemberment Plan LP a mixed bag | Album review

The Dismemberment Plan

The Dismemberment Plan, from left: Jason Caddell, Travis Morrison, Eric Axelson, Joe Easley. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

The Dismemberment Plan
“Uncanney Valley”
(Partisan)

The early 2000s were a nebulous time for independent music, and The Dismemberment Plan reflected that, spastically drawing upon a hodgepodge of styles ranging from noise-rock and disco-punk to white-boy funk and late-night jazz.

Parenthetically, the Washington, D.C. combo shared some traits with other groups — Talking Heads’ dancefloor-readiness, Fugazi’s tension-and-release — yet it also had a distinct voice, specifically that of singer-guitarist Travis Morrison.

On 1997’s “The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified,” the frontman came off like an overcaffeinated, undersexed grad student backed by a gang of musicologists.

2001’s “Change,” though, found him mellowed-out and philosophical, and the gang, now a group, offering a more streamlined take on its usual genre-hopping.

The D-Plan’s 2003 breakup felt premature, and now — with “Uncanney Valley,” out Tuesday on Brooklyn’s Partisan Records — they’ve returned to try and make it right.

Do they? Depends who you ask. They’re a polarizing band, and listeners who found Morrison’s verbose speak-singing more cloying than clever the first time around may as well stop reading now.

If you’re still on board, you might remember how, back when The D-Plan were still young men zeroing in on their sound, Morrison’s mix of deep thoughts and smart-ass zingers gave it its personality. But his wiseacre side is less amusing at 40 than it was at 25, his glib attitude on tracks like opener “No One’s Saying Nothing” a regression from the maturity he’d reached on “Change” 12 years prior.

When he turns his gaze outward, however, Morrison is quite the storyteller, his amiably wide-eyed, detailed snapshots of urban East Coast life strong ammunition against those overeager to dismiss The D-Plan as a joke band.

“Snow on the window of the taxi back home,” he observes on first single “Invisible” (listen), as a solemn orchestral sample repeats in the background. “I just sit back and I turn off my phone / The streets are glittering without a care / And I just vanish into thin air.” It’s a simple but affecting moment, proof he can still make the mundane poetic when he feels inclined.

The group’s musicianship, too, remains superb. The rhythm section (Eric Axelson on bass, and Joe Easley on drums) flexes its might on “Mexico City Christmas,” which features the kind of skittering beats you’d expect from an electronic artist like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher — not performed live, by humans. Then, there’s “Go And Get It,” with its gurgling Devo synths, Queen-sized chorus and Sting-like wordless bridge — the sort of sonic Frankenstein that put The D-Plan on the map.

Yet at other points during the ten-song set, Morrison’s bandmates (guitarist Jason Caddell rounds out the lineup) seem to have trouble getting on his same page, wasting nifty spy-movie riffs and a hard-hitting groove on the sophomoric “White Collar White Trash” (“I am not an inhibited man / I try to keep it in my pants when I can”) and bogging down more serious content like the romantic “Lookin’” with unusually thin arrangements.

Ultimately, though, responsibility for the hit-and-miss “Uncanney Valley” lies with Morrison. Held back primarily by his reluctance to commit to a consistent lyrical bent, it’s likely to leave even the most dedicated fans on the fence — and after a decade off, it’s fair to have expected The D-Plan to come back with something a little more focused and substantial.

Comments | More in Rock/Pop | Topics: indie-rock, Washington D.C.

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