Review Summary: It’s not Emergency & I, but the Plan’s second album offers more than it’s share of chaotic, if less accessible, left turns.
Do you know how to do the Standing Still? Oh, it’s very easy. Really all you have to do is stand in one place as you watch the concert and… there you go! Sure you can add foot-tapping (optional) or head-bobbing (also optional), but the by-and-large motionlessness of the dance has made it a favorite among self-conscious indie concert-goers for ages.
It was in 1997 that the Dismemberment Plan so aptly codified this practice on “Do the Standing Still” from The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified
. And yet, to have actually gone to a Plan show before their 2003 demise (before my time sadly), there certainly would have been some move-busting going on. Moshing, skanking, the pogo, whatever could translate the herky-jerky dance-punk the band was trailblazing at the turn of the millennium. But “a hundred million kids all dancing in suspended animation,” it was not.
And if the kids aren’t moving because of the music itself, full of sharp-edged riffs, rumbling bass, and barrages of impressive drum work, they’re knocked sideways by the left-field eccentrics that pour from Travis Morrison’s mouth. While the band hit the perfect balance of catchy hooks and erratic packaging on their breakthrough Emergency & I
, its predecessor is more deeply entrenched in Morrison’s lunacy, and too much so to reach for much accessibility. Think the frenzy of “I Love a Magician” for nine or ten tracks.
Now, to call a band’s sound or lyrics “strange” or “weird” is beyond cliché, especially when you’re talking indie. So to dig deeper, Is Terrified
seems to reveal a strangely relatable sense of chaos. Maybe it’s Morrison’s voice itself that keeps the album from going too far off the deep end, as it retains an everyman, charismatic quality even as it morphs from a disinterested conversational tone to punk screeches and even vocal sound effects. A more overarching factor, however, is humor. From the hilarious pop culture commentary of “Do the Standing Still” to the trippy bizarreness of “Bra”, the frenzied wallop of punchy guitar and spitting vocals still comes off with a smirk and a wink.
maintains an upbeat undercurrent and an engagingly sarcastic tone, but that doesn’t mean Morrison doesn’t have his grudges. “Academy Award” is a start-and-stop firebomb targeting sly backstabbers, while the slow, synth-driven “This is the Life”, which feels like an Emergency & I
b-side, defends to the end the slacker life path from finger-wagging know-it-alls. The final minute of “It’s So You” goes overboard, however, as Morrison virtually abandons vocal melody to deliver a scornful, revenge-vowing rant that just amounts to him awkwardly airing his dirty laundry.
The album’s main flaw, which is particularly clear in comparison to following records, is that the band lacks patience. In packing so much guitar onslaught, vocal theatrics, and wordy lyrics into tight spaces, Is Terrified
lacks a steady flow and feels too rushed to pack a maximal punch. Exceptions, and islands in the album’s sea of frantic racket, include the 12-plus-minute slow burner “Respect is Due” and “The Ice of Boston”, which remains one of The Dismemberment Plan’s best-known songs and a taste of the clever pop hooks that would populate later works. A chugging guitar rhythm leads to a winsome rock chorus, as a disaffected Morrison doesn’t so much sing as talk about his lonely, surreal New Years in Boston.
Most of all, “The Ice of Boston” paints Morrison as a guy with quirks and a degree of madness, but it’s clear that when he flies off the handlebars, as he does frequently throughout Is Terrified
, it’s because of annoyances, disappointments, and frustrations that are universal. He’s just the kind of guy to make mountains out of molehills and expand life’s downfalls into his own psychotic episodes. Whether true or not, on “One Too Many Blows to the Head”, the band’s philosophy rings out: “I got everything I want by losing my mind! YEAAAHEAAAA!”