Given the splash 1999's _Emergency & I_ made in the indie world, it's very hard to evaluate the Dismemberment Plan's previous album, _The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified_, on its own merits. Comparisons have to be made: _Is Terrified_ is rawer, noisier, more atonal, more experimental, less catchy, less melodic... essentially, _Emergency & I_ is the bizarre rock of _Is Terrified_ distilled into tuneful pop song form. This is not unusual: many indie rock bands will at some point release an album that critics declare more "mature" or "refined" than their previous work. What that doesn't tell anyone is whether the earlier, less refined work is any good.
Well, let me tell you: _Is Terrified_ rocks. From the opening, any Plan fan will recognize Travis Morrison's pitter-patter vocals and sardonically intellectual lyrics ("Leave your context at home and check your irony at the door"). By the time I heard him sputter "I know everybody here would love to get down and wipe the slate clean and do what they want and say what they mean and eliminate the, uh, existential, uh, quandaries of, uh, modern, uh, postmodern, uh, reality... ya dig?" at near-Micro-Machines speed, I was hooked. Irregular time signatures abound: "Academy Award" starts with drums playing a regular 4/4 against a guitar line that switches between 5/8 and 3/4 every measure. The band's sense of texture is, as usual, amazing, from the gritty synth playing the bassline of "That's When The Party Started" to the repeated plinking of one note in the right speaker on "This Is The Life", from the sudden entry of the guitars to support the choruses of "It's So You" to the crunchy groove underlying the verses of "Bra".
Strangely, although I always wished _Emergency & I_ could've been more experimental, it's just that lack of poppiness that keeps this album from being truly great. Although I thoroughly enjoy the album, and although the songs do stick in my head, I sometimes find myself missing the wonderful melodies that I know the band is capable of. Most of the vocals here are spoken, chanted or shouted, and the catchiest tunes (the choruses of "That's When The Party Started" and the verses of "Manipulate Me", for example) are much simpler and less sophisticated than a song like "Memory Machine". The other problem with _Is Terrified_ is that it occasionally crosses the line from rawness or silliness into obnoxiousness. The best example of this is "One Too Many Blows to the Head", whose screamy vocals and belligerent theme threaten to get on my nerves unless I remember that there's an atonal brass section just around the corner.
Enough of this criticism, though! Overall, the album is wonderful, and anyone interested in this band or this style of music should own a copy.