After a 12-year break from album releases, indie rock giants The Dismemberment Plan returned in 2013 with Uncanney Valley, a largely acoustic collection of light-hearted, lyrically-minded rock songs. I think I burned the CD from the library or something along those lines and found the LP infinitely rewarding — solid and energetic all the way through and for “Invisible” and “White Collar White Trash” to represent true steps forward for the band in artistic development.
Oddly, though, the album, by and large, met with pretty luke-warm reviews. Now, let me preface this by diagnosing this situation with something I see as a certain snobbery: people want to prove to others their devotion to the former material by holding the band to a staunch, unachievable standard, as a way of validating themselves within their critical profession. This is something I see, certainly, symptomatic in the A/V Club’s asinine “F” rating to Jane’s Addiction’s The Great Escape Artist, which is a really creative, lively and inspired collection of psychedelic rock (just not an 11-fold carbon copy of “Been Caught Stealing,” to its apparent demise).
One critic, from what I remember, cited “immaturity” as being one of the blemishes in Uncanney Valley, looking particularly toward the opening lines of “If you hit the space bar enough then cocaine comes out / I kinda like this computer”. Now, I mean, I can’t honestly say that I LIKE this line to the point where it means something to me. But it certainly doesn’t bother me to the point of disqualifying the album of its merit. Furthermore, why would maturity be a requirement for the new Plan album? This is the band that built their calling card on obtrusive screams, crazy, frenetic rhythms, abrasive mixes and songs about fighting and fu**ing. They’ve chilled out, relatively speaking, for Uncanney Valley, but still, the extent to which it sounds like a band that went into the studio and had fun making an album, to me, is commensurate with its perennial playability.
And perennially playable it is, with, again, tracks three and four especially ushering in a meaningful new stage of their development. “Invisible” is absolute divinity, with this trippy, stepwise, ascending synth riff governing the whole thing, and lyrics that seem dispatched through a phantom persona — the point of view of a struggling working person in New York whose future, even present, are uncertain, and who constantly feels “invisible” in the shadow of the big city, but almost seems to like it like that, too.
Anyway, a key component overlooked by any number of nearsighted critical snips surrounding this album is just how good it is on a sonic, fabric level. Right away, on opener “No One’s Saying Nothing,” we hear some of the most magnificent DP guitar sound to date. This aural shower is then complemented pleasantly by walking piano quarter notes as well as what seems like an endless arsenal of distinct synths and organs. Uncanney Valley showcases a band whose instrumentation has reached a kind of apex, commendable too for their success in making it all come across as ROCK — the plurality of sounds never seems phony, pretentious or gratuitous.
The problem is that this album seems like a tree falling in the forest when no one is around. In my humble opinion, then, this is a band that, in 2013, as certainly today, lacked a competent audience. Let’s be honest: indie rock was certainly out of trend by the time this album came out, and let’s not underestimate the importance of a zeitgeist, or an overall, worldwide cultural movement, in contributing to an album’s popularity. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Marcy Playground. But it’s pretty hard to see their caffeinated brand of pointless slacker laziness catching on in today’s world of stone-faced, serious ambition. Well, “uncanney valley” might be a sexual reference of some sort. That oughta win Travis Morrison some friends.
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