Live: The Dismemberment Plan Do The Standing Still (And Flail Around A Lot) At Webster Hall
Better Than: Back when they played shows with Death Cab for Cutie as the "Death and Dismemberment" tour.
Travis Morrison, frontman for freshly reunited D.C. post-punk dudes the Dismemberment Plan, resembles a bearded Alex P. Keaton ill-advisedly attempting a career as a battle rapper. He's a manic, giggly, charismatic, erudite, volatile guy, his lyrics often a neurotic jumble of in-jokes, insults, sordid confessions, and profound expressions of longing, none of which distracts him from also unleashing an unceasing torrent of between- and even in-song banter. Any crowd member who catches his wandering eye is a potential target. "Do your shave your chest?" "Are you Harry Potter? Daniel Radcliffe is going off the fuckin' rails." And, most notably, during the already monumentally goofy inclusionist dance-party anthem "You Are Invited," there's this: "Is that a can of Heineken? Maybe you aren't invited." INDIE-ROCK REUNION BURN.
From anyone else, fronting any other band, this would be insufferable, a jarring distraction from the I-loved-this-song-when-I-was-in-my-twenties pathos. But better than most, the Plan have always managed to fuse the corny and the cathartic. Their four studio albums describe the arc of anti-anxiety medication kicking in very slowly, the frenzied noise-punk abrasion of 1996's "!" gathering studio polish and pop-hook grandeur and much-appreciated white space and (relative) emotional maturity through 1997's The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified and 1999's particularly beloved (and recently vinyl-reissued) Emergency and I, finally culminating in 2001's gentler, almost wistful swan song Change, my personal favorite. Bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley could play their asses off from the onset, a frantic white-dub torrent they gradually toned down as a means of doubling the impact; Morrison got slightly less screechy in tandem, though here he is at Webster Hall, howling Change's colossal "Time Bomb" with a conviction undiminished by the fact that he occasionally cracks himself up with his banter, Jimmy Fallon-style. Comedy and drama are rarely this inseparable.
Yes, his fake-beatboxing Rahzel impression on Emergency's wildest, catchiest moment, "What Do You Want Me to Say?", is profoundly irksome. But mostly Morrison's hyperactive enthusiasm is infectious, from his Ian MacKaye-ish rant about mosh pits (eliding the difference between the kind where "people really want to hurt each other" and the kind that's "kind of homo") to the way he garnishes cacophonous early tune "OK Jokes Over" with the chorus to Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" (eventually changing it from "I whip my hair back and forth" to "I whip my beard back and forth"). Two songs delivered back to back distill the band's evolution pretty effectively: "Do the Standing Still" recalls a Fargo strip-mall crowd of six or seven people who refused to dance or physically respond to the band at all; "Back and Forth," Emergency's triumphant closer, then gets a sold-out crowd of serious-looking bearded thirtysomethings and the women determined to love them waving their hands in the air en masse, always caring, always caring. For the encore, Morrison pulls 50 or so people onstage for semi-power-ballad "The Ice of Boston," the chorus simple and catchy and made for screaming in unison, the verses a typically random jumble of drunken reveries and Gladys Knight jokes, but everyone tries to scream along in unison with those, too, a spectacle all the more endearing for the fact that it's impossible to get exactly right.
Critical Bias: "The Face of the Earth" is my particular I-loved-this-song-when-I-was-in-my-twenties jam.
Overheard: All of the lyrics to "The Ice of Boston," as sung semi-drunkenly by everyone.
Random Notebook Dump: During "The City," an Australian gentleman approached me at random and asked me what girls in New York City were like: "I just tried to talk to one, and she seemed quite intense."
The Face of the Earth
Ellen and Ben
You Are Invited
What Do You Want Me to Say?
Pay for the Piano
Do the Standing Still
Back and Forth
If I Don't Write
The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich
OK Jokes Over
Ice of Boston