Doesn’t 1999 seem like yesterday and an eternity ago at the same time? Whether actually gearing up for the impending apocalypse and wearing out your copies of OK Computer and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or merely imagining that you would have, it does seem in retrospect to have been a massively fruitful time for music. Instead of the fuzzy nostalgia one often feels when listening to these aforementioned masterworks, one spin of the vinyl reissue of Emergency & I might make you feel, more than any other emotion, angry. Where are all of The Dismemberment Plans now? This reissue reminds us of the possibilities of angular melodies, jarring rhythms, and anthemic choruses that went the way of Fugazi. With these traits practically overflowing on Emergency & I, one can’t help but feel that as virtuous as the musical landscape of 2011 is, we really need a band like The Plan to remind us just how to rock. Even if this reissue does little more than to call to one’s attention to the existence of such bands, instead of expanding upon our knowledge of them, it deserves your attention, your respect, and maybe a little of your cash.
Few bands in rock and roll history have united chaos, structure, melodicism, humor, and originality as keenly as The Dismemberment Plan. From the first moments of Emergency & I’s opening track, “Life of Possibilities,” this is all too clear. There is no intro, no build up. Instead, the listener is thrown directly into the world of Travis Morrison and his band. The first melody that we hear is so disjointed that it almost seems to be a mistake, but the song doesn’t remain merely strange for long. Soon, a guitar line so melodic that it couldn’t possibly be confused for anything else appears. Suddenly, the vocal melody takes on new meaning, and the song opens itself up to accessibility. When “A Life of Possibilities” finally climaxes around three minutes in, the simplicity of the progression and cohesion between all of the instruments is nothing short of breathtaking. This is only the first song on Emergency & I and the only thing more impressive than the trick that The Plan have just pulled off, is that they will manage to do it another eleven times before the album is over.
Emergency & I is a master-class in sequencing. Instead of blurring the boundaries between songs or including reprises as the best albums often do, The Dismemberment Plan coyly transfer the energy and thematic content from one song to the next. Most effectively, the sincere and devastating madness of “The City” makes way for the most intense and schizophrenic of all D-Plan songs, “Girl O-Clock.” Morrison’s identification with the isolation one can often feel in a large city, along with the abandonment that comes as a result of your loved one leaving the accursed place, feeds directly into a purely carnal desire for sex, a need that must be sated or the consequences might be dire. Elsewhere, the textural emptiness of the verses in “You Are Invited” only serve to make Emergency & I’s most anthemic chorus all the more powerful. A noisy synth grows ever louder while Morrison stages a conversation with an ex-girlfriend, eventually exploding to reveal and revel in the power of acceptance; and what a choice to place what might be The Plan’s most accessible song, right between the disorienting “I Love A Magician” and the frenetic “Gyroscope.” Their juxtaposition deepens the impact of all three songs. Earlier, the full gamut of 90’s frustration is expressed with brilliant simplicity in “What Do You Want Me To Say” and a chilling ode to anxiety is given all the more power by the band’s restraint on “The Jitters.” From beginning to end, Emergency & Ishowcases a balance between heartfelt emotion and biting wit in such equal measure, that no album by any of The Plan’s countless imitators can truly compare.
It is a testament to how great an album Emergency & I really is that the b-sides included with this vinyl reissue fail to make much of an impact. I say this because any of these songs would be highlights in the back catalog of any lesser band. Best of the bunch is live favorite “The Dismemberment Get’s Rich.” This distinctly meta, yet not quite autobiographical piece shows Morrison at the height of his acerbic candor. Such key lines as “Gave a quarter mil to the sound man Phil so he could run for Senate. He lost in the primary but we still love him!” will always be among the favorite lyrics of devotees. Nonetheless, as great as the song is, like the rest of this reissue’s bonus tracks, it does feel slightly out of place. The bookends of Emergency & I, “A Life of Possibilities” and “Back and Forth” work so well on their own that any addition, no matter how strong in its own right, feels unnecessary. Nevertheless, if one is to approach these extra tracks as a separate entity to the album proper, their inclusion becomes a welcome addition to any audiophile’s vinyl collection.
Finally, I would be doing a great disservice to the Plan if I failed to acknowledge the brilliance of the individual musicianship on display. Each member of the band gets a number of moments to shine, made even clearer in their fantastic live show. Drummer Joe Easley is the backbone of the group and without him, the incredibly complex rhythmic subdivisions on display would sound like a mess. Bassist Eric Axelson adds a funk edge that serves to further diversify the sound of The Plan and as such, his work has proved to be one of the most influential aspects of the band. These key players help to shape The Dismemberment Plan into who they were/are, but it would be a losing battle to argue against the preeminence of frontman Travis Morrison whose charisma is practically bursting at the seams on Emergency & I. Managing to blend the vocal stylings of Stephen Malkmus, Beck, and what sounds like a rapper from some bizarro dimension, Morrison’s presence permeates through every song on the album, even if he isn’t saying a damn thing.
Emergency & I is lightning trapped in a bottle. While the Plan’s other albums were never less than good, this was truly their moment. Even when performing live, these songs have a certain luster to them. The crowd clearly favors them and the band even seems to enjoy playing them more. When Morrison closed the night with “The City,” shouting “Goodbye” from the bottom of his heart, I prayed that this was just a lyric and nothing more. We need The Dismemberment Plan to rescue us from the endless and indistinguishable flood of garage rock and shitgaze and so this vinyl reissue could not have come at a better time. Maybe if we’re lucky, the future will hold more in store for the Plan than just another tour, but even if you don’t get the chance to see them live, you owe it to yourself to give Emergency & I a permanent spot in your record collection.