Perfect Sound Forever

Travis Morrison

Photo by David Holloway

He Broke Up Your Favorite Band
by Dan Weiss
(August 2008)

Here's the refreshing thing about talking to a musician everyone thinks has gone batshit insane: preconceived canons of taste go out the window. Everything is fair game: Once, R. Kelly, Dirty Projectors, gospel hymns, Kanye's "Through the Wire," and of course, Prince and Neil Young's "bad" periods. I certainly don't agree with everything Travis Morrison likes, but I agree that he is liking them. For the hour that we do our interview, he has my full attention (one of dozens of hours if listening to his records counts) and I'm inclined to agree with him that Fugazi's End Hits is the greatest thing since sliced bread. That's what's so great about talking to the indie rocker who went to Jupiter (a/k/a turned 32, went solo, got engaged): you get to shift norms for a day. Put yourself in his shoes: "I was afraid I wasn't really getting it anymore…then I heard the Dirty Projectors."

Morrison would make a great music critic; his musical tastes are his own and he's unapologetic about it. He thinks London Calling is full of hot air, and counters Sasha Frere-Jones with a quick demonstration of his pipes on an Arcade Fire song: "Who says that they don't make black music?" And then he illustrates, right there in the coffeehouse, with a few particularly soulful bars from "Crown of Love." And he's right, of course. He also does a great R. Kelly impression.

Morrison led the Dismemberment Plan, the boldest of all D.C. post-punks to big-up Ian MacKaye, not least because they sounded more like a caffeinated Talking Heads than Drive Like Jehu, but also for injecting an uncomfortable dose of reality into a famously hermetic scene. In the Plan's universe, you will get called out for standing still at shows like a deer in headlights ("Do the Standing Still"), you won't disguise your fear of your ex with fancy wordplay ("OK Joke's Over") and you will admit you'd "rather be happy than right this time" ("Come Home"). And they were named after a line in Groundhog Day. Great band.

Then they broke everyone's hearts. But they did it gently: in 2003, four guys who couldn't possibly hate each other went back on the road for "One Last Slice," as they deemed their final tour, and played an unheard-of two hours of nearly all requests. They posted about a dozen tracks on their website as individual parts, so fans could make their own remixes and submit them for possible entry on a compilation. The best track on A People's History of the Dismemberment Plan, which came out later that year, jammed snatches of Elvis Costello's "Pump it Up" into DP's "Pay for the Piano."

Morrison didn't make fans wait very long for the inevitable solo material, easing them in first with a goofy icebreaker, an acoustic cover of Ludacris' strip-club standard "What's Your Fantasy?" and hosting demos and odd experiments on the inaugural edition of, next to jabbering blog entries on OMD's Dazzle Ships. But when his Death Cab-backed debut, Travistan was finished and released on Barsuk a year later, interest stopped cold. 2004 was a defining year for the rapidly-watched indie tastemaker stronghold Pitchfork Media, as the 9.7 out of 10 the website awarded Arcade Fire's Funeral is widely credited with breaking the unknown collective to heights of popularity unseen by indie bands (their second album, Neon Bible, debuted at #2 on Billboard, with no change in label). Pitchfork gave Travistan a rating of zero out of ten. Many independent record stores consequently refused to stock the record at all, and, presumably horrified by the reaction, Pitchfork allegedly no longer allows its reviewers to saddle an artist with a 0.0 grade.

Whether the music is actually any good or not was immaterial at this point; the damage had been done. When I saw Morrison's new band, the Hellfighters, at Philadelphia's World Café in 2006, not a single song from Travistan was played. His second post-Plan album, All Y'All, was released to neither acclaim nor derision... it didn't earn enough reviews at all to garner a rating on de facto bell-curve*.

Moving from a smaller Capitol Hill apartment to the one he now shares with his fiancée in Park Slope earlier this year was a great big New York shock; the man's D.C. allegiance file includes lyrics about I-81, rooting for the Washington Wizards, and even a day job programming Javascript programmer for the Washington Post. But only off-the-train fans will be surprised; a cursory scan of All Y'All alone yields more change than the Plan's own Change. So he may as well be living out "Hawkins' Rock," a particularly melodic offering that suggests the Morrison dream of settling down includes a three-legged dog renamed Zeus (from Apollo, mind you). "We can disappear forever," sighs the hook. Maybe those double zeroes were a boon for a minor rocker starting a family, but not irate fans like me.

The guy responsible for some of pop's spaciest concrete pictures ("plastic cube filled with pus atop my boss' desk," "like a bulldog lost in a cornfield") is surprised by his own literalism, though: "I guess when I run the songs together in mind that is what it does. I mean, those are things that happen in lots of people's lives, but I didn't like, plan it." Admittedly, All Y'All would be juicier if it would plant a firm foot in satire, like the bedmate who flexes, then "cries if he can't deliver" in "Catch Up," a song Morrison himself can't parse. And if Against Me! did one called "Churchgoer" you can bet it would concern a Bushie.

But Morrison's oft-derided critical distance from what his characters actually signify--same voyeur from "Catch Up" also "stares right through the Brooklyn Bridge"--could be the missing link in the David Byrne analogy, the temptation to both poke fun and cow in wonder at the machinery of humankind. His "Churchgoer" is hooked to one of the most beautiful and wrenching situations adult indie-rock has yet imagined: "I love the girl who loves you, too/Not more and not less, just different." And in a healthy way, he knows he's a funny guy, celebrating favorite names (Alexandra Bernard "sounds so humble yet hard") or snacks ("Now give me the macadamia nuts--pleeeeeease"), from "Book of Names" and the precious a cappella novelty "Snacktime" respectively, he sounds just as gleefully self-aware as he did skewering immobile Plan fans ten years ago. Except now the possibility's open to expect an Alexandra Bernard of his own. Which don't mean maturity--a recently appearing live giggle titled "Cruisin'" is a gay cop caper like the Pacino film of the same name. For Plan fans who've had seven years to trade their craven vinyl for a heart and a funny bone: catch up.

*For what it's worth, the Onion A.V. Club graded All Y'All an A, and Dusted Magazine printed a beaming essay defending the album and Morrison's solo career. I myself awarded it a 9.2 out of 10 for Lost at Sea and was its sole voter in 2007's Pazz & Jop poll. And FYI, Travistan's excellent "Song for the Orca" has timidly begun reappearing in Hellfighters live sets.

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