By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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"There's a fantastic quote from [Steely Dan's] Walter Becker about their early recording efforts, and how frustrating they were," Morrison says. "The way he put it was that, 'We would just go in, and we wouldn't be able to play it, but we'd play it over and over again, hoping that it would miraculously come out right once.'" He laughs. "Young musicians definitely tend to do that a lot. I think the main thing the money afforded us the opportunity to do was really go after it, see how tight and well-crafted and sculpted we could make it.
"It wasn't fun," he continues. "At times, it was enormously trying, and we all completely resented J. Robbins for it while we did it. Now, of course, my thoughts about it are totally like the thoughts you'd have about an old Jesuit teacher. Like, 'Thank you for rapping me on the knuckles. You made me so much better.'"
And it shows on Emergency & I. The songs may be all over the place, but that's exactly where the band wants them to be; seven years of playing together has allowed the members to tame their influences without completely containing them. You can still hear all of them at times, yet they are just another part of the Plan now, long since absorbed. Emergency & I is a little bit of the Talking Heads, Fugazi, Stevie Wonder, Public Enemy, Devo -- even some Steely Dan -- smashed together until the ingredients all look and sound alike, which is to say, different from almost anything else out right now.
Alkaline Trio and Swivel open
Taken separately, the songs on Emergency & I fit together like pieces from 12 separate jigsaw puzzles, yet it all works somehow, mainly because of Morrison's panic-attack vocals. He's the smooth crooner on "Back and Forth," the manic street preacher on "8 1/2 Minutes," and somewhere in between on "The City" and "Spider in the Snow." Every song is a study in opposites and how they combine to make each element stronger. Like the way the sing-song chorus of "You Are Invited" detonates out of nowhere, since the band lulls you to sleep by surrounding it with little more than a drum machine and Morrison's push-pull verses. Or how "A Life of Possibilities" breaks in two at the end, as the band re-imagines the song as a next-wave rave-up after spending the previous two minutes resting all of its weight on Axelson's heartbeat bass line and Morrison's creepy falsetto. Even when the band plays it straight -- the get-up-and-dance "Gyroscope" -- the end result is laden with ice-cream-truck keyboards and a bridge that sounds as though Morrison's luck ran out at a dunking booth.
It all adds up to the most daring record of the previous year, a disc that feels a lot like a masterpiece. But Morrison isn't content with Emergency & I. He wants the band to top itself, come up with something that's equal parts off-the-wall and Off the Wall. And he's not looking to rock and roll for ideas. At least, not anymore.
"I think modern R&B, popular R&B, has gone into a fascinating period," Morrison says. "I think there's a lot of people responsible for that, from anyone like D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill to that guy Timbaland, who just does the most bizarre stuff. It's really weird, and not only do people like it, people dance to it. I think probably one of the least interesting areas of music right now is rock and roll. Even a lot of indie rock, it's like...I don't know." He laughs. "I feel like there's not that many freaky visionaries. Even a couple of years ago, you saw Shudder to Think, and they were really different.
"But in modern R&B and hip-hop, they're aggressively experimental, in the name of, like, making money and dancing and having fun," he continues. "But they turn out to be more experimental and boundary-pushing than the bands in what is viewed to be an art underground, like indie rock."
But more than anything else, Morrison just wants to make a record like his heroes -- who, in this case, aren't exactly what you'd expect.
"I love Steely Dan," Morrison says, not at all sheepishly. "I think they're one of the best bands ever, in terms of a catalog that I can dig through and just find classic song after classic song. It's really interesting. If you wanted to appreciate 'Peg,' you could appreciate it as disco fun. You could appreciate 'Peg' as a really creepy story of a guy being obsessed with a teenage model. You could appreciate it from the level of being harmonically ambitious. They worked on so many levels, and I just love that.
"I love it when bands are in the public eye, and they're popular, and, if you want to, you can appreciate them on a really freaky and complex level -- if you want to," Morrison says. "But you can also, like, turn them on and be like, 'Peg, it will come back to you...'" He laughs. "You can't ask for anything more than that, because so many bands only work on one level or another."
The Dismemberment Plan doesn't have to worry about that.