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By Observer Staff
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Part of Morrison's newfound interest in self-examination comes from the band's work on Change or, at least, the decisions the group (bassist Eric Axelson, guitarist Jason Caddell and drummer Joe Easley) made after finishing Emergency & I. Recording Emergency & I--funded by a short-lived deal with Interscope Records that went teats up almost as quickly as it came about--was a difficult process, one that Morrison admits was salvaged only by producer J. Robbins' keen ear. ("He saw what was there before we could," he says.) The band upped the stakes on Change, resolving to push itself instead of letting someone else do it, to make a statement, not just an album. Robbins manned the controls again (along with Chad Clark), but this time he was there to record, not coach.
"It took awhile with [Change], kind of because we had to get our game up to a new level," Morrison says. "We had been coasting, to be totally honest. If we were gonna make a fourth record, we had to finally make a decision to be musicians. A lot of times with indie-rock bands, it's kind of this culture of excuse. Like, you're in this band because you're out of college; you don't know what the hell you're doing with yourself. You're not really focused on your craft or anything like that."
While committing to the idea of being musicians, the members of the band were less sure about being The Dismemberment Plan, at least the version that recorded Emergency & I and ...is Terrified and !, the group that treated songs as confrontations, choruses as slogans, melody and rhythm as weapons. That kind of aggression still had its appeal--and as it turned out, its place on Change--but the group wanted to explore different territory on its next album, something that wasn't being done to death by everyone else, something they hadn't done to death themselves. If nothing else, Morrison wanted to get away from "songs that are based on the Pixies principle of a bunch of noise and then a chorus and then a bunch of noise and you come flying out of the noise with the big hook."
"You turn on the radio and it's all so assertive," Morrison says. "Speaking as the singer of a band whose first two records were mind-bogglingly assertive and in-your-face and up-your-nose and all that, it seemed like there was a big space for records that aren't climbing all over you. And we've definitely climbed all over people; we did for years, and we will again." He laughs. "But for me, there's records I cherish that you could call them boring, if you felt like it, if you wanted to, if it wasn't what you wanted in that moment. You could call [Talking Heads'] Remain in Light boring. You could say it's sprawling. You could say it's unfocused. But you don't. You play it twice for some reason. It's like this world you can burrow into, that doesn't have any signposts or any directions about how you're supposed to feel while listening to it."
Like Remain in Light, there are moments on Change you could call boring, but you won't. Or you shouldn't, at any rate. There's "Come Home," which meanders along its way as Morrison sits at home on a rainy day, listening to "the rain rattle the leaves" and calling his dad "to maybe find some common sense." The carefully strummed guitars and shuffling beat handily corroborate Morrison's story, simmering for three minutes until all the tension and frustration boil over, the band cutting loose while Morrison wails, "I don't know," a lyric that might as well be the song's title. There's "Automatic," a stark acoustic number that devolves into a weary whistle of sound, while Morrison attempts to understand "the politics of common sense" and "the fireworks of bad ideas." And there's the album-opening "Sentimental Man," which sets its mood one line in ("There is no heaven and there is no hell"), Morrison coming to grips with his new worldview in a soft falsetto ("I'm an old testament kind of guy/I like my coffee black, and my parole denied") while doing his best to explain himself ("How do you know I'm not a sentimental man?/Is it really so hard to catch that vibe?/I guess it is").
That said, Change is not so far removed from Emergency & I's mission statement, picking up and extrapolating on that disc's quieter moments without stepping completely off the dance floor. "Face of the Earth" is a pristine example of The Dismemberment Plan's plan, a strategy where each instrument could be the most important part of the tune, where every verse and chorus could be a different song. "Pay for the Piano" is the rock answer to OutKast's "B.O.B.," a song that transcends its boundaries just because it does, not because it's trying to; while the band shreds the scenery, Morrison drops rhymes like a confident MC, showing off his lifelong love of hip-hop and recent love affair with Jay-Z singles. "The Other Side," on the other hand, gives the drummer some, a showcase for Easley to prove he can do with a drum kit what Roni Size and other drum 'n' bass jocks need machines for.