[29 October 2007]
The “emo” genre takes an unfair beating at the hands of music connoisseurs. In its anthropomorphic form, emo would be that mopey kid that sits in the back of the classroom wearing pegged black jeans. The one whose better-than-average poetry about unrequited love drew ire from the sleeveless t-shirt crowd, closeted swoons from cheerleaders, and a hearty thumbs-up from their English teachers (who probably preferred Emily Dickinson to the sock hop in their own teenage years) for mastery of simile and metaphor.
Nevertheless, pigeonholing an entire genre, confining and defining it with requisite trappings is unfair. Yet, we as consumers feel the need to constantly categorize everything. From fast food to television and music genres, we insist upon lumping a given (sandwich?) artist into some grouping in order to better understand if it’s something we may or may not like. This is how many a good band has been overlooked and a ho-hum group is given a shot based on approximations of taste.
Before it morphed into both a punch line and style of overpriced clothing and accoutrements sold over-the-counter at Hot Topic and other trendy, mall-based chain boutiques, emo was actually a subgenre of hardcore punk. Like many other styles and sub-categorizations of music over time, “emotional hardcore” or “emotive hardcore” found itself warped into a kinder, gentler version of itself. Eventually, “emo” came to be more associated with the indie scene, a prime example of indie-emo being early Weezer.
Although separated by a spectrum’s length of classification, the derivatives of punk, emo and hardcore (especially hardcore in its metal-hybrid form) have a lot in common. Both styles deal with extreme aspects of the human condition. Emo, in its currently evolved form, leans towards the pop-punk end of the dial if even towards punk at all, similarly, the hardest of hardcore distances itself from the melody of punk replacing it with a series of chugging, thrashing chords. While emo primarily revolves around the misty world of lost or unrequited love, hardcore (slam)dances on the plain of anger.
Although slapped with the emo label, on their latest release, The Shade of Poison Trees, Dashboard Confessional transcends the boundaries of what quantifies as emo. Whereas most of lead singer/songwriter Chris Carrabba’s material from other albums in the Dashboard catalogue deal more with fond feelings or recollections of innocent love, his work on The Shade of Poison Trees presents something slightly different. Stubbing a toe over the line into hardcore territory with railings of love-born angst, albeit an eloquent, poetic sort of angst, on this most recent outing, Dashboard Confessional are so emo it hurts, yet more punk than they may even know.
An undercurrent of anger and pointed resentment runs through many of the tracks on The Shade of Poison Trees. “Matters of Blood and Connection” is a scathing tongue-lashing directed at children of privilege hell bent on “slumming it” in an attempt at earning street cred while still bolstered by the ol’ trust fund safety net. Lyrically more TSOL than Taking Back Sunday, the lovely acoustic rendering of the song belies its venom.
Themes dealing with feelings of betrayal and having been lied to crop up at several points throughout the first-person accounts. “Little Bombs”, “Clean Breaks”, and “Keep Watch For the Mines” all spit a quiet fire. They’re angry, but more of a pensive sort of anger that ponders the cause of this betrayal and subsequently answers the question with an internal dialogue. Back to emo personified as a tragic high school poet, Carrabba channels an emotional sort of violence, repeatedly using knife imagery stabbing words as a metaphor for this betrayal in the given tracks.
It’s not all anger on The Shade of Poison Trees, though. Their sound is still unmistakably Dashboard Confessional with Carrabba’s instantly recognizable voice ringing beautifully from pillar to post on every track. Whereas the group’s last two studio albums, 2006’s Dusk and Summer and the disc that catapulted them into the spotlight, 2003’s A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar were marked by an electrical upgrade, this latest disc heads back to their power-acoustic roots. Guitarist John Lefler and Carrabba have a high old time on a country/Gaelic pick n’ strum combo on “Keep Watch For the Mines”, one of the few instances of soloing and providing a beautiful duel.
Although all guitars on the disc are acoustic, that doesn’t stop a few well-placed synthesizers from popping up on the album to further fill out the sound. The synth isn’t overwhelming; rather it helps to set more of an ambience.
Also present and accounted for are the same beautiful, multi-layered lyrics and soaring choruses, each conveying a distinct story or set of images inside a single song. In fact, this time, Carrabba has seemed to mature even further in his already strong song writing.
“These Bones” beautiful lyrics trip off Carrabba’s tongue with his and Lefler’s guitar work galloping at a gradually faster pace at various points throughout. Another outstanding track, “Where There’s Gold…” is almost a sweet answer to Kanye West’s “Golddigger”, a pseudo-sympathetic look at “other women”. Carrabba’s poignant lyrics paint a portrait of modern-day courtesans as actresses to some degree, “But movies never made you famous / All your dreams got lost or traded / And all you ever cared about got lost …You throw yourself into their arms / Mistresses have all the fun / But no one’s ever there to take you home.”
Even at their most tragic and at their angriest, most of the tracks on the album are calls to empathy in unexpected scenarios, feeling pain as a means of catharsis and in turn acknowledging the pain in others after turning inward. The results are amazingly beautiful.