Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Dismemberment Plan - Uncanney Valley

 

Benefit:hinderance ratios in lyrics are just one of a vast pile of double-edged swords bands usually refrain from turning away from - likely out of challenge, but more-so perhaps out of discomfort. In the literal rewakening of produce for The Dismemberment Plan, opener No One's Saying Nothing cements the band's nature for lyrical tease: 'You hit the spacebar enough and cocaine comes out/I really like this computer'. 2013 may likely end proceedings as the year of 'the return' among its decorated titles (which I'm sure I'll cover in some form of excess during the end-of-year featurettes), but as the quartet from America's capital make their solemn, contempoary claim for excellence, it wouldn't surprise me should the questions regarding Uncanney Valley less revolve around its musical prowess, and more concerned about the vocal and lyrical attitude towards its chosen subject matter. Delivery and performance have played a great, and quite stellar role for the band in past campaigns; 1999's Emergency & I stands as one of the 90's most varied but rich displays of indie rock to date. Despite its increasing age though, it offers little to bring to attention its more-than-a-decade-old existence.

So once past the tipsy scales of wording on the album's first track, The Dismemberment Plan set out with the rejuvination of charisma and expression. At least, that's the intent. The opening swell of bass - which texturally catches my ear in its less musical-esque sourcing; sounding more like its coming from out a rusty or old piece of machinery - certainly deters from a piece that already doesn't attempt to demand clarity. Even still, theres a distinct lead of chord changes amidst vocallist Travis Morrison's hill-sloping delivery and the unfortunate muddle of percussion - the latter instrumentation preventing any potential from allowing the listener to soak in the song's lyrical focus. What to me comes across as this venturous shift of ballads between daring friends and comfortable accomplices, ends up partially tarnished by the distinct lessening of clarity in production, even with the track's closing merriness of Morrison's repetition and dense relaying of guitars. To hear Waiting take an immediate one-eighty musically and sonically, in typical Dismemberment fashion, is no surprise. But even with the distant parade trope introducing the piece, the song's bouncing groove of guitar plucks and skewed synthesizer flickers definitely give a new lease of life to the band's venture forth. Morrison's lyrics aren't as dynamically conflicting or interchanging here, but instead find a comforting middle-ground about the music's art-rock melody.

Perhaps one of the more fresher efforts comes in the way of Invisible and the way it interlinks its initial sampling of strings into the quartet's more harmonious gel of guitars and percussion. The looping fades in and out of presence, and even when it's before us it doesn't override or overly dominate the main lead of guitars that preside over the track. But more-so, lead notably by Morrison's less-extrvagant vocal tone, the track seems to present a sturdier and more comforted delivery than previous tracks. Even with the repetitious lyrics at times, the vibes emanating from the song suggest Dismemberment's content with the musical space surrounding them, which thanks to the subtle string loops, paint a faint but depth-inducing intrigue about it. White Collar White Trash's momentary lapse of identity plays to much the same degree of benefit; its drastically flash compression of percussion and whails of 'But it's alright in the suburban twilight/There leaves no doubt what this is all about' seeming to play to the track's referencing of secrecy and hidden acts. This would have been a delightful listen had the track not have lead straight-off with such an amateurishly callous expression of 'I am not an inhibited man/I try to keep it in my pants when I can'. In doing so, there's already a struggle to take not only the lyrics but so too the vocal persuasion of Morrison himself seriously, - made worse by the respect its instrumentation so galliantly attempts to strive for and, by itself, rightly deserves.

Obviousnss and stark qualities in lyrics aren't anything new; if anything it was one of Emergency & I's underlining merits as a full-length next to its vast scope of ideas that moved faultlessly from one distinctictive piece to the next. But where that album (and to a lesser degree, follow-up Change) succeeded was in its careful consideration for what stood as charismatic and charming, and what ended up lauded with some characture-like sillyness. There are moments on this album that slip too close to the latter, and while the slide isn't absolute or underpinned, the very presence of Morrison's personality more-so than his voice, give off an unpleasant risk before the prevalent and lush musical arrangements. Idea-wise then, Dismemberment's play seems to stem from the notion that measures (still) require drasticness, but they unfortunately land the band so far into unknown territory, the modesty for liveliness often goes astray. Living In Song fortunately sees the quartet nestling in a sonic geography rather than pitching above it like antic campers or blind venturers. The alternating passage of percussion - in parts shining its light on the bobbling electronic variants as well as the crunchy, pristeen oranic tips - creates an interesting harmony of sound against a conventional play of electric and lead guitars. 

Following that, Lookin' finds Dismemberment experimenting (pwith backgrounded scores of tone to again add a certain honesty and suggestion to the band's ballad for softened chord patterns and Morrison's sincere equivalence to narration. Despite Morrison demonstrating less than poetic (and more importantly challenging) analogies of lyricism, 'What did you say...oh I'm sorry...I was just looking', what shines through for the band on tracks like this - especially given this is the longest of the ten - is the quartet's managing of harmony and tone in the long-run to at least reinvigorate the lack of solid, lyrical detail. Given how withdrawn and slightly melancholy the choir-like ascension of sound comes across as, it's clear there's some attention put into the emotive and sensual side of the band's music, even if the instrumentation (let alone the lyrics) content-wise is scarce. There's no doubting Morrison and co can convey a degree of feeling and emotion in what are at times theatrically dumbstruck deliveries - comedically relevant as a knock-knock joke. The benefit/hinderance therefore is that Dismemberment cast two lurking shadows behind themselves: one manifests as the more-signatory, animated craze of lyrics and alternate rock...and the other appears just-as-excessed but more in-focus - more thought-over where the theoretical side of their sound is lesser, and the tension/excitement surrounding it, is increased.

As Morrison admits on the personal downpour of Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer, 'When they finally lay my cold and creaky bones to rest, I hope I'm not a mystery to those who knew me best', there's a feeling here that he's in fact referencing fans of the band. The same fans whom will look back on the quartet's discography, and ironically, be more stumped on their identity as perhaps those who have only just come to the band upon 2013's comeback. If that is the case, the surprise is that the change in terms of advancing their sound, is minor in comparison to the way Dismemberment reimpose the characteristics of their previous record like some musical check-list. But Mexico City Christmas comes along and seems to voice the argument for such a crossing-off of past glories - Morrison's vocals prevailing at increasing the tension in phase-like stages even if his range sits fairly adjusted to more a middle ground than past records. As we gather momentum towards the track's tense unleash of guitar riffs and crashing cymbals however, there's a canny satisfaction in the way the band still manage to jump the furlons without crashing tumbling to the ground thereafter. Lets Just Go To The Dogs Tonight though closes rather too Dismemberment-like with a narrative that's splintered but is aided by the music's consistent rhythm of percussion and slick guitar strums. Unfortunately with the lyrics' juxtapose between story-telling and harmonious repetition, the charm becomes shakingly justified - the quirkiness of subject matter bearing a challenge its listener might evnetually find difficult in accepting, and more evidently, wanting to return to.

Some writers have pointed fingers at the album's somewhat out-of-time existence as if Uncanney Valley's timing is deserving of worse than the typical fashionably-late mentioning. But strangely, I can understand why some might reach for such verbal sayings to describe this record's stance. It may be eleven years since The Dismemberment Plan put out an album - the album in question not really climaxing the band's output on a rocketing high - but there are large portions of this record (not so much in regards to whole tracks, but certainly moments where a sound shifts to a particular style or characteristic) where the eleven year gap feels non-existent in the disgruntled nothing's changed manner. Where they try their hand at expanding as well as developing through electronic tones, the result often shines light more on the riskiness Travis Morrison's lyrics and flow consistently leave the band's music caught in the kicked-up dust of. What prevented that in past albums was the tonal risk of variety and the sonic tendency to treat sound with decency when it mattered, and surprise when such a gamble paid off. The surprise is prevalent here, but it's not absolute to the positive half of the spectrum. And given Morrison's upfront approach to performance, it's hard to shrug off the lyrics offered up on this album as something positively delightful or frenzied. Dismemberment are certainly a colourful bunch. But with a decade past, if they haven't gone about turning down the toning, you'd expect by now for them to at least have implemented more consistent means of story-telling.
~Jordan Helm
 

6.3

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