Dashboard’s release showcases broad musical palette

Band rebounds after last year’s mediocre CD

There’s something inherently special about a guy singing his heart out over the strumming of an acoustic guitar. It took me several years before I arrived at this realization, but there is no denying its powerful ability to convey emotion. Over the last decade, few have been more successful with this stripped down approach than Chris Carrabba.

After branching out with a full band and electric guitars during their last two efforts, Dashboard Confessional returns to its acoustic roots for their fifth studio album The Shade of Poison Trees. Now that Carrabba is all grown up and in his 30’s, his maturity is evident throughout the songwriting on this newest release. He keeps the songs short and to the point, with only one crossing the three-minute mark. Instead of “Screaming Infidelities” to hammer home every point, he plays around with subtle vocal inflections to get across a similar meaning. He also continues to diversify in the lyrical department, moving past a typical assortment of love songs.

Among the album highlights are the acoustic-only numbers, which account for four of the total 12. Opener “Where There’s Gold …” does a great job at setting the tone of what’s to come, carried by Carrabba’s trademark voice, and the upbeat “Keep Watch for the Mines” displays a distinctive chord progression that blends perfectly with the vocals. “Little Bombs” is classic Dashboard, sure to incite a concert sing-a-long, but the real success is “The Shade of Poison Trees,” which slows things down amid an intimate performance from Carrabba.

On the remaining tracks, which feature varying degrees of band accompaniment, both a texture and faint touch are included that keep them both fresh and interesting. “Thick as Thieves” is an obvious standout, its short run time never detracting from its effectiveness, while “These Bones” relies on a quicker tempo to propel its upbeat chorus. The band experiments with a drum machine and a hint of electronics in “Fever Dreams,” radiating an unexpected cheerfulness, and “The Rush” exhibits more of their diversity, led by percussion and keyboards.

The record only missteps twice, and, while neither song is distinctly weak, it is a matter of failing to measure up against the disc’s overall strength. “I Light My Own Fires Now” is missing that special something to take it to the next level, perhaps because it lacks a strong chorus. “Matters of Blood and Connection” offers more of the same, failing to stick out or go in a different direction, and it would have been best utilized as a b-side.

Fortunately, the album comes to a close with two of its greatest tracks. “Clean Breaks” is backed by a picked guitar strum, piano and strings, and is a fine example of Dashboard’s expanding palette. Nevertheless, the best song is saved for last, with the outstanding “The Widows Peak” capturing the honor. Uncharacteristically driven by piano rather than guitar, it contains a moving chorus expertly articulated by Carrabba’s falsettos, revealing the heart-on-his-sleeve emotion he has become well known for.

Recorded in a mere ten days, Dashboard’s latest finds them coming full circle, embracing the style which first made them famous. There has been some debate over whether or not this was due to the mixed response given to last year’s Dusk and Summer, and thus is to be considered a step backwards for the band. Only time will tell if that is truly the case but for now, the most important thing to keep in mind is the finished product. When a collection of songs is this good, that’s all that really matters.

4 of 5 stars

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