Best Laid Plan

Members of Dismemberment: Eric Axelson, Travis Morrison, Jason Caddell, Joe Easley
George Chase

You know, sometimes I think bohemia ain't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe the notion of a culture where alternative routes to maturity can be devised and nurtured is just the stankiest sort of utopian doo-doo. Maybe we should just be grateful for the supply of sullen cheap labor that failed artists and musicians provide. But the accumulation of well-meaning but psychologically off-kilter creative types too often results in a perpetual post-grad course in stunting your emotional growth. The benighted relationships between these folks generate as much needless frenetic drama as a very special episode of Felicity.

Such an environment creates its own sensibility, one that permeates the scattered, arty margins of most metros in similar ways. Bands immersed in it often have too little perspective to come up with anything more incisive than glib putdowns or desperate displays of sentiment. Which isn't to say that a band that could see through the hypocrisies and rationalizations of this postcollegiate diaspora--even when it shares them and even cherishes them--couldn't make something of the mess.

D.C.'s Dismemberment Plan has been doing it for six years now, chronicling the under-30 crowd's rootless stabs at security and self-sabotaged affairs. This self-awareness reached its apotheosis on 1998's "The Ice of Boston." The plot: Frontman Travis Morrison follows a girlfriend up to Boston, winds up dumped and talking to his mom long distance on New Year's Eve. The upshot: "Midnight Train to Georgia" comes on the radio, and a taunted Morrison screams at Gladys Knight (and himself), "Get a life!"

"The Ice of Boston" was issued by Interscope, who dropped the Plan amid the bloodletting label mergers of the late Nineties, before the band had even released a major-label full-length. Since then, touring Europe with Pearl Jam has made the band pushy live. (A show this summer at New York's Bowery Ballroom made me fearful that they might be laying down slabs of arena rock in the studio.) But in fact, their latest album, Change (De Soto), is less ingratiating melodically than previous albums, and more nuanced. It's the sound of a band that has already tried to sell out and can now commit to the open-ended discoveries that indeterminacy brings.

These boys love them some math rock, and their rhythmic complexifications sometimes make it sound like they're embarrassed that the guy up front is singing about gurls. There are moments when the softened and mussed guitars threaten to sound like the Police at their most instrumentally skeletal, others when you can envision a profitable future career as Subdivisions, the ultimate Rush tribute band. Often, in fact, the music and the melody sound like they're going through a trial separation, or like abstract remixes of songs they never finished writing. But that's just the Plan's way of achieving structure without slipping into the morass of soft verse/LOUD CHORUS post-alt cliché, arriving at the pleasures of pop song by their own circuitous route.

And that improvisatory element is thematically fitting, since these tales take place in a scene where the morality of sex and friendship is improvised as well. "Ellen and Ben" follows a couple who "met at someone's housewarming party [and] didn't like each other at first," spend a few months sexing it up and withdrawing from the scene, then split up forever. "I thought it was rude," shrugs the narrator. "I couldn't tell you why." Here as always, indie rock gets off on the thrill of serial monogamy, that tension between temporary security and potential freedom--it could end at any time or it could last forever. Because no matter what Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth have taught us, it's culturally ingrained that a happy ending is just that: an ending, your personal nighttime soap canceled and you and your mate resigned to a dwindling ever after.

On Change, Morrison aches upward where once he fretted maniacally, nursing a fragile coo that almost sounds as if he were trying to muscle in on Dave Matthews territory. More likely, he's just sparring once more with a latent ironic tendency. This is a guy, after all, who opened up one album with a song titled "Tonight We Mean It" and went on to ask "What Do You Want Me to Say" ("to make you know that I do mean it?"). He initiates Change with a moony "How do you know I'm not a sentimental man?" But when you start out your love song musing, "There's no heaven/ There's no hell," Trav, you'll generate that kind of response.

Nonetheless, Morrison seems to learn from his mistakes, which is the whole point of serial monogamy and boho experimentation. In fact "The Other Side" seems like it sets commitment as a final destination, while realistically listing possible pitfalls: "There are times when you will not like the sound of my voice" and so on. Just think--if Greater Bohemia copped to wisdom like "I'd rather be happy than right this time" it could put Lou Barlow out of business. And tonight Morrison means it. We'll see about tomorrow morning.

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