The Dismemberment Plan: Memory Machine

The band brings a well-deserved encore to the Showbox.

It might be hard to imagine in our mashed-up Girl Talk era, but there was a time and a place when it seemed truly radical for a gawky, nerdy white guy to bust into a version of Juvenile’s Southern hip-hop hit “Back That Azz Up” in the midst of a mathematically rigorous post-hardcore set. That time was the mid-to-late ’90s. That place was Washington, D.C., and its Virginia suburbs, home to legendary punk/hardcore label Dischord and its attendant musical scene. And that band with the gawky frontman, the affinity for the Top 40, and the casual disregard for genre strictures was The Dismemberment Plan.

The Dismemberment Plan formed in the shadows of D.C. hardcore, but they approached the genre like jazz dorks and smart alecks. They fused deceptively tuneful guitar skree and goofy keyboard noises onto a locked-on rhythm section given to confoundingly funky time signatures. They wrote songs like “Girl O’Clock” or cheeky b-side “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich” (which tumble all over themselves, tugged along by roiling, off-kilter rhythms), or “Gyroscope,” which spins around a surprisingly affecting emotional core while essentially jerking about like that one spaz at the dance party who’s all elbows.

Singer Travis Morrison could deliver big, anthemic balladry (on songs like “What Do You Want Me to Say?”), but he just as often spoke his lyrics as a deadpan monotone or an anxious rant. On some of their best songs, like “The Ice of Boston” and “You Are Invited,” Morrison alternates from one mode to the other, verse to chorus, the contrast amplifying the effect of each. His lyrics were simultaneously witty and heartfelt—Morrison’s epic loser on “The Ice of Boston” was both brutal punch line and utterly sympathetic protagonist.

The band broke up in 2003, but recently reunited to tour in support of local label Barsuk’s reissue of their 1999 masterpiece Emergency & I. Videos from the shows so far suggest that Morrison and company have lost none of their manic onstage energy in the intervening years, and that their pop songbook is not only intact but updated (recent performances have featured interpolations of Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” and extended riffs on Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”).

Another tradition appears to live on as well: Every night the band closes with “The Ice of Boston,” and the crowd takes the stage, reveling like they want never want it to end. For one more night at least, The Dismemberment Plan’s party gets an encore. You are invited.