In 1999, after two albums of spastic and only fitfully inspired postpunk racket, this quartet from Washington, D.C., released one of the best alternative-pop records I've heard in the past decade, Emergency & I. Like XTC in their glory days (before they decided to become the Beatles), the Dismemberment Plan managed to straddle the fence between pop and prog--metrical tricks, unexpected key changes, uncomfortable modes, and experiments in dissonance went hand in hand with brainy but heartfelt lyrics and blasts of irresistible melody. Given the near perfection of that album, the band's ethereal follow-up, Change (DeSoto), can't help but disappoint: though singer Travis Morrison's disaffected musings are as brilliant as ever (on "Sentimental Man" he declares, "I'm an old testament kind of guy / I like my coffee black, and my parole denied"), many of the tunes are relatively shapeless, salvaged only by Joe Easley's energetic, no-nonsense drumming. Still, a fair number of tracks make good on the promise of Emergency & I: "The Face of the Earth" exploits the tension between one guitar's airy arpeggio and another's jittery baritone note; the fiery "Pay for the Piano" alternates between Morrison's tumbling rhymes and a 4/4 chorus booby-trapped with half bars and dropped beats; "Secret Curse" lurches from an ascetic two-note melody into a florid rock-radio guitar riff and back again; and "Time Bomb" uses a large, dramatic vocal interval to drive home its chilling lyrics ("I am a poison and I am still coursing through your bloodstream like a ghost / Like wine, gathering vintage, 'til the day I hurt the most"). At its best the Dismemberment Plan combines a venturesome restlessness with a shrewd reliance on the familiarity of guitar pop--a reminder that half the pleasure of striking out into strange new territory is returning home afterward. Sunday, November 25, 6:30 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Holloway.