When the canonization of D.C. punk reaches its logical conclusion and a post-hardcore fresco is commissioned for the ceiling of the Black Cat, you can bet the depictions of Ian Svenonius and Travis Morrison will occupy opposite corners. Or maybe they’ll be a pair of drama masks, with Comedy and Tragedy recast as indie rock’s warring forces of Irony and Sincerity. Representing the former will be Svenonius, the once and future Sassiest Boy in America who—as both frontman and talk-show host—has turned the prolonged, deadpan pause and Chardonnay-dry sardonicism into fine art. Inhabiting the latter will be Morrison, The Dismemberment Plan’s “Sentimental Man,” whose plaintive, everydude voice has lead a years-long search party for empathy in the modern world (and who, admittedly, was hawking some really adorable Emergency & I onesies at the merch table at his band’s reunion shows last year).
Luckily, we needn’t cast these two D.C. legends into antiquity quite yet—both have new (or newly unearthed) music out this month. In Cool Blood is the third LP from Svenonius’s current project, Chain & The Gang. The prison stripes the band used to sport in concert were clearly all for show, because Svenonius set his previous collaborators free and enlisted some new (plainclothesed) gang members: co-vocalist Katie Alice Greer, guitarist Brett Lyman, and drummer Fiona Campbell. They bring a new energy to Chain’s now-familiar sound, with extra credit to Greer, whose cheeky, rolling-eye vocals take the helm during the mock-nihilist jive “Free Will.”
A Chain & The Gang record is best judged by how well it captures the band’s magnetic live show, and on that scale In Cool Blood ranks high. Thanks to its exuberantly mono, just-dicking-around-in-the-garage acoustics, you can almost feel Svenonius’s lisp spittle in your ear. A few tracks overstay their punchlines—stretching the one-note “I’m Not Interested (in Being Interesting)” into two parts kind of belabors the titular point—but more often than not, In Cool Blood is goofy, vampy fun. It’s possible nothing in the band’s discography sums up its modern-life-is-rubbish credo as hilariously as “Certain Kinds of Trash,” which ends with a nostalgic Svenonius ticking off a list of things you just don’t see in the garbage anymore: typewriter ribbons! Cloth diapers! Porno mags!
“Cruisin’ (All Night Long)” Travis Morrison Hellfighters (Bad Friend)
Add to that list: Travis Morrison Hellfighters ticket stubs! Morrison’s post-Dismemberment Plan project has been defunct for a few years, but the new D.C. label Bad Friend Records (whose co-owner is Washington City Paper contributor Ryan Little) has dusted off three unreleased tracks for its debut 7-inch. The A-side, “Cruisin’ (All Night Long)” is a classic Morrison short-story song with an unexpectedly weighty plot, exploring the moral scruples of two gay cops on the overnight shift (“They arrest us doing stuff/That they sometimes do with us”). Here and on the B-side “Henrietta,” the Hellfighters’ liquid grooves complement but never overwhelm Morrison’s chatty vocals, and the title track in particular ranks up there with the (notoriously, though arguably, erratic) band’s highpoints.
Svenonius and Morrison, it turns out, might not be opposites after all: Both plumb the complexity of their personas until they find that irony and sincerity aren’t so much opposing masks but two sides of the same coin. Morrison makes the earnest narrative of “Cruisin’” palatable by peppering it with his characteristic wry humor; even Chain’s most sarcastic manifestos reveal the hidden hearts on their prison-stripe sleeves. “The times we are living in,” Svenonius promises toward the end of In Cool Blood, “they won’t do in all of us.”