Dashboard Confessional

A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar (Vagrant)

It's really easy to make fun of Dashboard Confessional: the bleeding heart on the sleeve, the unreasonably handsome frontman, the painfully adolescent angst. It's all a bit cloying and laughable.

And then there are the fans. Watching the diehards at a Dashboard show is almost like watching the last days at Jonestown. The worshipful, transfixed gazes of those hordes as they unabashedly belt out every word to every song with the same reverent gazes that must have fallen on Jim Jones as the Kool-Aid started to kick in. It can be a little creepy.

And yet there is something consistently compelling and charming about Chris Carrabba's music. The vulnerability of Dashboard's narrator is so sincere and intense that it grabs and holds the listener in a hormone-drenched spell. The latest DC effort, A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, is no exception.

From the urgent rock of the opener, "Hands Down" (familiar, perhaps, from 2001's So Impossible EP), to the ambitious six-minute closer, "Several Ways to Die Trying," Carrabba's deft plucking and witty, incisive libretto provide an eminently listenable and enjoyable soundtrack to adolescence for brooding teens and ex-teens.

Though there are plenty of familiar elements here, Mark is a far more traditional rock record than 2001's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. Carrabba's forceful vocals and shimmering acoustic guitar are augmented by John Lefler's solid electric guitar and keyboard work, emo veteran Scott Schoenbeck's unobtrusive bass, and longtime Dashboard collaborator Mike Marsh's truly musical drumming. The arrangements feature far denser instrumentation, and the occasionally modulated Janovian scream that was Carrabba's vocal m.o. on Places and on 2000's Swiss Army Romance has been replaced with a greater emphasis on melody. This newly refined sound is sure to make fans out of those who found previous Dashboard releases, well, a bit too confessional.

Much of the credit for the new sound can be attributed to producer Gil Norton, whose résumé reads like a who's who of relevant '80s and '90s alt-rock -- the Pixies, Throwing Muses, Echo and the Bunnymen, Belly, Ed Harcourt, Catherine Wheel. Norton has done an amazing job of filling in the spaces and ferreting out the hooks in Carrabba's compositions. Without losing the latter's nimble, insistent acoustic guitar work or his earnest vocal delivery, Norton has pulled the pieces together and produced an indie-rock record that even emo haters can dig. Moving away from James Wisner's delightfully spartan productions was a gamble that paid off. Elements of power pop, '70s rock and good old pop punk are layered together to create a rich, dynamic record that highlights Carrabba's versatility.

Millions of adoring teens have dutifully purchased each EP and re-release since Places, Dashboard's breakthrough, and that same adolescent army will dutifully purchase A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. For those who have never listened to a Dashboard record -- or, more important, for those who have listened and didn't like what they heard -- give this new record a chance. Go ahead. Drink the Kool-Aid.

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