Release Date: Oct 15, 2013
Record label: Partisan
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock
Lest you think that an adulthood spent working for posts Huffington and Washington has ruined Travis Morrison’s sense of humor, he opens Uncanney Valley with a joke: “You press the spacebar enough and cocaine comes out/I really like this computer. ” It’s corny, yeah, but is it ever good to hear the vacuuming whirr of synth and the chime of sideways guitars that come raging behind it. It’s been 12 years since The Dismemberment Plan wrung their hands and made Change and then went their separate ways, and the time since has mellowed them out considerably.
The temptation to slap a big juicy 10/10 on this before I’d even heard it was strong, and remains with me despite living with Uncanney Valley (sic) for a while, and reconciling myself with the idea that, in honesty, it’s not worthy. The disappointment I felt in not being able to bequeath the title of perfection to a record by The Dismemberment Plan was eventually tempered with the realisation that, hey, I’m not listening to any normal new record here. It’s like someone once told me of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy – “it’s not like reviewing an album, it’s like reviewing a unicorn – I’m just surprised it exists”.
Uncanney Valley, the Dismemberment Plan's first album in 12 years, is the sound of a group at ease with themselves and their legacy. They're still an emo band, still confessional, still relatable in their open-diary sincerity, but middle age seems to have broadened frontman Travis Morrison's lyrical scope. While songs like “Ellen and Ben,” from 2001's aptly titled Change, were more insular character studies of the way his friends' lives impacted his own, the new material offers wider, more societal commentaries.
A new album from The Dismemberment Plan after over 10 years of stasis, through many layers of a slowly growing legend, did not seem like something that would or should ever happen. The woulds have obviously been answered by the release of the band’s fifth studio album, Uncanney Valley, following a few successful “comeback”-style gigs. The shoulds part, though, is heartbreakingly up for debate.
Ten years out of the game is a long time for anyone. But for The Dismemberment Plan it may seem even longer. In the decade since the Washington-born ensemble called it a day, the hyperventilating art-punk genre they once excelled in has been pounded, pummelled, and packaged into something that sells records and everything else—from potato chips to high-end motors.
Review Summary: When I say 'what the,' you say 'hell. ' What the!In a stunning display of how to alienate fans and obliterate expectations, Travis Morrison kicks off Uncanney Valley with the lyric “Press the spacebar enough, coCAINE comes out! I really LIKE this computer!” From there, the facepalms never let up, as Morrison dad-jokes his way through the first album in twelve years from seminal white nerds The Dismemberment Plan. This might be a tough pill to swallow for old fans; both Emergency and I (1999) and Change (2001) nailed early-twenties ennui in such an insightful, poetic way that hearing the couplet “I am not an inhibited man!/ try to keep it in my pants when I can!” from the same band is a heartfuck of Raditude proportions.
For some indie-rock fans, the Dismemberment Plan have always been the band that got away: too noisy to win over bookish brainiacs, but too smart (and too subtly funny) to convert cool-kid cred dispensers. A decade after breaking up, DP find themselves firmly in step with our attention-disordered, hypernostalgic times. The endlessly hooky Valley veers from funk-furnished, thrashing tragicomedies ("Waiting") to springy eulogies for the past ("Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer," an upbeat downer if ever there was one).
Whether you know it or not, we've all likely experienced the uncanny valley. It's that creeping feeling when something seems normal, but is just off enough that it becomes deeply upsetting on a fundamental level. This concept is something the Dismemberment Plan play with on their fifth album, Uncanney Valley. Their first recording since the band dissolved in 2003, the album finds them returning with a sound that feels sort of like the old Dismemberment Plan...but different.
Between 1993 and 2003, The Dismember-ment Plan were one of America’s most experimental, idiosyncratic indie bands. They reformed in 2010, and this is the Washington DC four-piece’s first full-length album in 12 years. Thankfully, there are echoes of their past greatness here, notably in the tense urgency of ‘Mexico City Christmas’ and the semi-spoken odd-pop of ‘Invisible’.
There are a few things that separate The Dismemberment Plan from the also-rans of Nineties American indie rock, but arguably the most important of all is that they never really let anyone down. They came and they went, leaving behind a discography of seriously enjoyable records, without much cause for consternation or dismay. You wouldn’t begrudge them for wanting to do other things with their lives.
The Dismemberment Plan no longer has anything to prove. So, what do you want them to say? What do you want them to do? Their place in indie rock history is set right at the intersection of the “Struck Down Too Soon” and “Underappreciated In Their Time” narratives. They were a band the Internet loved before the Internet could move mountains, and their only flirtation with wider success (the beginnings of Emergency & I on major label Interscope) had a Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ending, without the accompanying iconic documentary to grant the album a Phoenix’s commercial rebirth.
A lot has happened in the 12 years since the last album by Dismemberment Plan, or D-Plan as fans affectionately call them. When 2001’s Change was released, we had just witnessed the fall of the twin towers, bombs were raining down on Afghanistan, and George W. Bush was sitting pretty in his first term of office, riding high on terrorism-age popularity.
The Dismemberment Plan cut the cord in 2003, worn down from the road, stalled out on recording the follow-up to 2001's Change. Bassist Eric Axelson formed Maritime with ex-Promise Ringers Davey von Bohlen and Dan Didier, then taught a little English. Drummer Joe Easley works at NASA; guitarist Jason Caddell is a sound engineer around D.C., and frontman Travis Morrison, after a couple solo efforts—one passable, one ghastly—temporarily retired from music, got a gig with HuffPo, and joined a choir.
So here it is, then, the first album from mathy indie-rock cult legends Dismemberment Plan in twelve years. This isn’t something anyone was expecting, Travis Morrison having unceremoniously “retired” from music in an announcement on his website five or so years ago; not to mention that D-Plan were a quintessentially mid-20s band, all their finest work perfectly delineating all the insecurities of that phase of Western life – now all four of them are on the cusp of middle age. But it really shouldn’t have been this disappointing.
In the interest of preserving the relationship between writer and reader I feel I should lay open my relationship with this band and their new record. I’m a fan of The Dismemberment Plan, and have been for years. A decade and more ago, when they were at the peak of their powers and I was in my early 20s, I loved them intensely. Songs such as 'The Ice Of Boston' and 'The City' captured something important about being that post-adolescent void and feeling cast adrift in an adult world that you don’t quite understand, aware that you’re making stupid mistakes and bad decisions, but somehow powerless to prevent yourself anyway.
Back when they were kids and they rode the train home after work, picturing the apocalypse as any place their friends had moved out of, the Dismemberment Plan weren’t speaking for you. They were delivering you messages. The details were shady and dramatic, the landscapes deceptively barren, the drums chaotic and disorientating, but the important thing was that they had a messenger.
The Dismemberment Plan —Uncanney Valley (Partisan)More than 40 years ago, roboticist Masahiro Mori theorized in an essay that a person’s reaction to a human-like robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached but failed to attain a truly lifelike appearance. He called this sharp descent into eeriness the “uncanny valley. ”It’s appropriate, then, that The Dismemberment Plan named its comeback record Uncanney Valley (the extra “e” is intentional)—mostly because it’s stuck deep at the bottom of it.
Mixing angular post-punk guitars with '80s-inspired funk grooves, the Dismemberment Plan saw where indie rock was headed before most of its peers. So you'd expect that the Washington, D.C., band's first album in 12 years would feel like a victory lap, with a current of told-you-so electricity. As ….