How two of indie-rock’s greatest albums broke down every remaining barrier in one day
October 26, 1999 was an incredible day for rock even if the vast majority of rock fans didn’t know it.
Even if you were clued in and knew that Bikini Kill’s combustible former frontwoman Kathleen Hanna was debuting a new project and that The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified was one of the twistiest, most inventive post-punk albums of 1997, you were still about as ready for Le Tigre and Emergency & I as “Creep” fans were for OK Computer in 1993. Part of the shock was that these albums were so good, because even when you’re a good kid, m.A.A.d city fan, a To Pimp a Butterfly could completely recalibrate your pleasure center. But as with To Pimp a Butterfly, these two classics were so instant because they sounded like virtually nothing that came before them, not even the authors’ own previous work.
Like Kendrick Lamar, the Dismemberment Plan built on the most dissonant, crashing components of their genre in a manner that was neither dark nor turgid. They turned anxiety into kinetic energy, and that shook out to something like jazz. While plenty of peers from the Plan’s native D.C. had followed Fugazi’s lead and made punk from abstract noises and wayward rhythms, only the Dismemberment Plan reached outside of their scene to make the connection between these impulses and genres that many musicians and fans couldn’t square with rock. Their perfectly titled 1995 debut ! was hardly a standard-issue punk record but by their second album they were landing jazzy bass and chaotic tuba onto “One Too Many Blows to the Head” and hip-hop-styled self-referentialism on “Do the Standing Still,” which bemoaned their own fans for not dancing. Synths and spoken-word were creeping in, and where Kurt Cobain previously brought the mystique of Leadbelly to the alt forefront, Travis Morrison’s masterpiece “The Ice of Boston” treated a Gladys Knight’s most popular smash as a conversation piece. Most of Terrified is astounding, but the next time out, virtually everyone agreed every song was a masterpiece.
Emergency & I doesn’t start with a bang. “A Life of Possibilties” snaps to life with Joe Easley’s firm backbeat and Morrison’s almost Dave Matthews-esque octave-toggling vocal. The song builds, floats, slowly dawns on the listener as a widescreen panorama both in its gentle ear takeover and its thematic indecision, which has to function for the emo generation as The Graduate or something. It’s melodic; it also farts. Then the rollercoaster drops and “Memory Machine” plugs a wire to each temple lyrically and rhythmically with its whipping rhythm jerks and electroshock two-note keyboard riff. Neither alt-rock nor prog has either made such concise brain-blenders out of time signatures that keep falling down the stairs. The otherwise anthemic “Gyroscope” keeps punching you in the gut every time it skips its eighth bar, “8 ½ Minutes” steps on a rake in the second measure of each chorus. Words like “angular” and “splenetic” fail to give “Girl O’Clock” anywhere close to the proper dimension on paper but Morrison’s stuttering delivery and Easley’s octopus-at-the-Olympics drumming hadn’t been matched as an aural thrill ride until, yes, To Pimp a Butterfly’s “For Free?” turned Kendrick Lamar into a free-jazz carnival barker. But somehow it’s Emergency & I’s most conventional tunes that were its most groundbreaking.
“You Are Invited” and “What Do You Want Me to Say?” were not quite pop songs. But they showed how a grunting, squealing skronk band could incorporate hip-hop’s beats and repetitions (and electronics) into a newer manifestation of alt-rock than Beck’s sample-hearty likes. This was scene music after all, perpendicular to emo’s first wave the way Remain in Light was to ‘70s punk, and the Plan was turning a conservative scene inside-out. “You Are Invited” even deconstructs what a party even is and why you’d want to go, bringing into sharp relief the question of punk itself: whether alienation and community can be entwined in the same unstable fusion. It’s only fitting that the band was briefly signed to Interscope, who paid for the thing and gave it back to them. It’s only fitting that the production was helmed by ‘90s punk legend J. Robbins and current art-rock visionary Chad Clark of D.C.’s indescribable Beauty Pill.
The closing “Back and Forth,” and wistful classic “The City” were funky indeed, and all but invoked David Byrne’s social-realist analysis with a bit more sexual frustration in their gears. “Girl O’Clock” could indeed be mistaken for an incel manifesto today if Morrison didn’t showcase so much of his feelings and emotions in every bizarre chord change. One of the many inventions of Emergency & I is how much angst it bleeds out of relationships that never blame the woman. When he sounds pathetic, it’s because he wants to sound pathetic, and not because he’s trying to manipulate the listener. Pulling pop, jazz, rap, and even R&B (Eric Axelson’s dubwise, bass-led speciality “Spider in the Snow”) into this synthesis helps prove the point of the lyrics, that loneliness and confusion can be shared via means beyond miserable-sounding music. There’s sadness to Emergency & I but it never overtakes the invention. A couple years later, we formally watched the rise of electroclash and dance-punk, with herky-jerk rhythms and throbbing-vein anxiety becoming a short-lived norm in the deliveries of Hot Hot Heat, The Fever, We Are Scientists, and most famously, Franz Ferdinand. And keyboards took up permanent residency in indie-rock.
On a whole different end of the spectrum, Le Tigre built their own semipunk masterpiece with similar goals but arrived there a completely different way. Kathleen Hanna is a considerably underrated guitarist and Johanna Fateman and Sadie Benning were crucial soundscapers and programmers, but Le Tigre, their first (and for Benning, only) album together, is a display of craft over chops. It’s far more punk than Emergency & I because it’s so richly uncomplicated – blunt riffs and programming that went for the jugular with car-horn samples and cheap thrift-store beats – and also because it’s inextricable from Hanna’s politics. Yet even with such exhortations as “Fuck Giuliani! He’s such a fucking jerk!” from “My My Metrocard” or the “misogynist? Genius!” call-response refrains of “What’s Yr Take on Cassavettes,” both of which more frighteningly relevant than ever two decades later, this is the most joyous music Hanna had ever made.
Making a joyous political record was already unheard of (I guess the B-52’s would’ve come closest??), but to do it within the confines of punk meant completely resetting what punk is. And “Hot Topic” unloads that agenda purely in a list of women and non-binary figures they admire in the artistic-political continuum, putting Sleater-Kinney on the same wavelength as long-lost No Limit rapper Mia X (whom I hope has since heard this record), Yoko Ono, and Davises both Vaginal Crème and Angela.
Making “What’s Yr Take on Cassavettes” a comic routine underscores the genius Hanna’s only recently received her due for: The entertainment and comedy she recognizes in our intersectional failings. Nowhere is this juxtaposition more clear than “Deceptacon,” one of the greatest opening salvos in rock history, with its Transformers-referencing title, “Who Put the Bomp?”-swiping opening line and “who does your, who does your hair?” all vying with furies like “Let me hear you depoliticize my rhyme” and “I can see your disco, disco dick is sucking my heart out of my mind.” It’s also in their impossibly catchy hooks, even Johanna Fateman’s underlying “all that glitters is not gold” while Hanna rips her target apart over death disco in “The The Empty” and the inexhaustible sampled riffs of “Phanta,” a song about incorrect data findings. “Let’s Run,” quite possibly the greatest anthem here, gets a dynamite one from morse-code beeps.
Like the Dismemberment Plan, these women were steeped in new wave and hip-hop and sound excited as fuck to finally be able to show off this lineage. But instead of simulating their forebears via virtuoso rhythm section, they bridged the gap between hip-hop and dance’s DIY origins on vintage samplers and sequencers with punk’s DIY three-chord manna. “Deceptacon,” “Let’s Run” and “Hot Topic” sound every bit as cheap as LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat” or Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” and every bit as classic. And where the Plan insisted on audience movement, Le Tigre choreographed their entire stage show, effectively diminishing any idea that indie-rockers couldn’t offer a stage show to rival, say, the Backstreet Boys. Meanwhile, Travis Morrison went on to incorporate an obvious Outkast influence into the follow-up single “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich” and praise Vanessa Williams and Avril Lavigne for Pitchfork long before they even embraced token Swedes.
Le Tigre and Emergency & I are pure pleasures that both escape from their genres and expand them to let whole new dimensions in. They’re concrete about their feelings, convictions, confusions, and hooks. They engage with society rather than shrinking away from it, though they detail a good cadre of reasons to peace out. They fight and they love and they don’t waste a second. They make you dance, laugh, and endlessly quote them. They were an early example of indie musicians in conversation with pop, proving that the sellout-anxious were philistines. Their cumulative effect on the musical landscape has been roundly positive but there’s still nothing like either one. Two decades later, almost everyone who knows they exist is gladder for it. Two decades later, both still deserve millions more fans.
AUDIO: The Dismemberment Plan Emergency & I (full album)
AUDIO: Le Tigre Le Tigre, Kill Rock Stars 1999