What Would You Say?

Since Travis Morrison, who sings and writes for the Dismemberment Plan, is obsessed with time—time as bundles of faded memories and good-byes; time, in other words, that has already passed into history—it’s perfectly fair to regret that his band played the Knitting Factory last Thursday instead of on New Year’s Eve. And not just because “The Ice of Boston” is probably the best song ever written about the holiday. Ringing in the new would’ve made perfect sense because of the Dismemberment Plan’s nowness: the transcendent rush of their conflicted but concentrated funk rhythms and punk drive; their teetering stack of syncopated beats, basslines that growl and wander, new wave synths, insouciant guitar fragments, vocals that careen from monotone to falsetto shriek. At the same time, when it all came together in the four-on-the-floor sing-along choruses, the night achieved a certain pop timelessness.

Frank Kogan recently predicted on these pages that the new century’s music will be characterized by the tension between the “Euromelody tradition” and “tumbling funk.” The Dismemberment Plan have absorbed both, and wrung out a cloudy, electro-tinged, almost jazzy flow. The melody half comes from post-Fugazi art-punk; the off-kilter beats via early homemade hip-hop (as exemplified by the canned breaks of “You Are Invited”). The foursome began in the nation’s capital in 1993, but singer Travis Morrison balks at the assumption that they were heavily influenced by D.C.’s hardcore scene, and expresses confusion on their Web site at having suddenly been deemed—by Spin, among other know-it-alls—as emo. It’s a tough tag for the band to dodge, however, having toured with some of the subgenre’s standouts (the Promise Ring, Braid), and given their relationship with emo stalwart DeSoto Records (where they’ve put out three full-lengths and numerous singles since 1995). Interscope picked the band up briefly, only to put them back down after releasing The Ice of Boston EP in 1998. But the Plan’s latest, Emergency & I—a highly focused, accessible effort that constituted most of their live set—suggests the big-label execs should’ve thought twice.

Although a sticky Roland button derailed their first song, and some sloppy guitar playing (and a broken string) diffused the strength of a few numbers, the Dismemberment Plan’s rhythm section stayed drum-tight at the Knitting Factory. Drummer Joe Easley stutter-stepped through the syncopated beats of “Gyroscope” (think the Dave Matthews Band’s drummer stripped of hippie pretenses), and his acrobatics on the kit were matched by the frenetic bass fingering of Eric Axelson, who sets a tension by meandering through the scale and tripping over downbeats. “What Do You Want Me to Say?”—residing somewhere in the pop pantheon between the Cars and Graceland-era Paul Simon—percolated with angular guitar, dublike bass, and ’80s synth leads during the verses, but crystallized into a strict 4/4 and simple pounded chords for the choruses. Very pop punk. (That’s not a bad thing.)

As Morrison breathlessly recited during the new album’s gorgeously kinetic “Back and Forth,” “We were never connected or involved, except for the intersections and crazy mathematics with no time, and no space, and no schedule, and no place.” Drummer Easley kept on fracturing time, undermining the meaning of numbers on the calendar. In the end, it was enough to take Morrison’s old-school-gone-deadpan advice to heart: “Throw your hands in the air, and wave them like you just don’t care.” —Nick Catucci

Diverse Detroits

Though the two DJs are born of the same musical heritage—namely Detroit techno—last Wednesday’s set at Twilo from Underground Resistance’s Rolando and the previous Friday’s set at Twilo from Richie Hawtin of Plus 8/M_nus fame—could not have been more different.

Rolando represents UR’s hyperpurist anticommercial line: no interviews, no promos for the press, undying allegiance to the future funk and steamy soul that put Detroit on the electronic map. Currently in a battle with Sony Germany over his track “Knights of the Jaguar,” he defiantly led off the night with the popular tune, and eventually played it not once, not twice, but three times—as if to insist, “This belongs to me.” Noting the song’s soaring strings and uplifting melody (which might seem unusual coming from a label as militant as UR—but then, this is also the home of “Hi-Tech Jazz”), it’s easy to see why Sony decided to “cover” “Jaguar” as a trance anthem. Rolando dedicated the rest of his set to the underground and to Detroit—both the Detroit of old (Paperclip People’s “Throw” and the acid-house strains of classic UR) and the Detroit of new (Hawtin’s dynamic “Orange”). His track selection more than compensated for some rough mixing. In as little as 30 minutes in the cozy confines of Twilo’s Y2K lounge, Rolando covered more ground stylistically than Hawtin had in three hours at Twilo: Brazilian and Latin rhythms, female vocals, tech house.

Notorious for his dentist-drill-minimal concept albums as Plastikman, Hawtin presents a Motor City flipside, driving techno further down the stripped-down sci-fi road first conquered in the mid ’80s by Derrick May’s Rythim Is Rythim. As a DJ, Hawtin can be particularly agile, playing music that’s alternately brutal and beautiful, moving between a techno assault and a mellow, almost housey sound. Unfortunately, he chose to spin a straightforward but merely competent set on Twilo’s gargantuan main floor. I don’t blame his DJ skills or even his vinyl selection, but his favorite accomplices, the 909 drum machine and the EFX, which swept away any subtleties of the records Hawtin picked, merging them into a blur of midrange sonic frequencies. It was a bit of DJ vu: His recent live mix CD, Decks EFX and 909, has some of the same problems; he even played a few of the same songs live. Ultimately, the set just stayed stuck in one place.

Or did it? The crowd obviously thought not: They whooped and hollered and hooted at every silent break and every crescendo that Hawtin masterfully manipulated. The dancers didn’t want him to ease up at all—they wanted it even harder and faster, if possible. Late in his three-hour set (a very short one for Hawtin, who was experiencing monitor problems), a deep, dubby, minimal track flowed in from his turntable as if it were underwater. I waited with crossed fingers, hoping he’d take the night in a new direction. But alas. He never had the opportunity to change gears, and his fans might not have wanted him to, anyway. —Tricia Romano