Contrasted with the cheap sentimentality of commercial pop and the obtuse mumbling of most indie rock, the songs of Dashboard Confessional hit the listener like a bucket of ice water: Bracing, instantaneous, and unquestionably direct.
On The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (Vagrant), his second full-length under the Dashboard moniker, singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba serves up 10 emotionally charged originals that manage to be brutally honest yet never maudlin. Lines like "And this apartment is screaming for an argument/Anything at all to break the silence" (from "Saints and Sailors") or "I heard about the cool breeze, in the cool nights, and the cool guys that you spent them with/Well, I guess I should have heard of them from you" ("Best Deceptions") get under your skin as quickly as any couplets Morrissey, Bob Mould, or Elliott Smith ever penned.
Having made his name with hardcore bands Further Seems Forever and the Vacant Andys, the Boca Raton, Fla., resident's quieter Dashboard compositions still bristle with the immediacy of punk and have been embraced by that community. If Jeff Buckley had ever wound up opening for Face to Face, he'd probably have been howled off stage, but Dashboard Confessional gets audiences singing along-loudly. The group's recent set at New York's Knitting Factory felt like equal parts group therapy, football rally, and—thanks to some impromptu harmonies from the house—glee club recital.
The sing-along phenomenon still shocks Carrabba. "It doesn't really scare me that kids would react that way because I think, by virtue of what the songs are, it's a really natural thing," he says. "But it surprises me every time, without fail." At a Philadelphia gig two weeks ago, the volume of the kids' voices was unsurpassed. "I literally had to step back a couple times so that I could be in the song, not in the crowd," the heavily tattooed troubadour admits.
Aside from his unerring way with a melodic hook, the 26-year-old's greatest songwriting strength is his frank depiction of often unsettling emotions. "I was raised by an incredible single mom, and I don't know that I ever [encountered] that real macho, suppress-your-feelings attitude in our household," he explains. Fortunately, in Dashboard Confessional, which he started over two years ago during a rough spell, he has fashioned "an incredible outlet" for his emotions, lest he dissolve into a total basket case. "If I didn't have the songs to get that out and center me a little bit, I'd be a drag to be around. I'd have no friends."
Carrabba's mother, a skilled singer and pianist in her own right, encouraged her offspring to pursue their muses, and he's very close to his family. "Everyone—my cousins and uncles and aunts, even Grandma—is very supportive of what I do." The former elementary-schoolteacher frequently returns to his mom's place to write. "I have guitars at my mom's house and my friends' houses and the practice space. I own more crappy, cheap guitars than anyone I know, just to leave 'em places so that they're there if I get inspired."
The latest release from Dashboard Confessional, and the first to feature the band's newest member, ex-Sunny Day Real Estate guitarist Dan Hoerner, is the So Impossible EP (in stores mid-December but available now at shows), which tells a short story over the course of four songs. "For You To Notice" introduces "the not-so-brave boy wanting to talk to the girl." The title track finds the object of his affection "just fed up with waiting around and making the boy talk to her." "Remember To Breathe" depicts the moments before their first date, while "Hands Down" is a snapshot of that evening.
Without sacrificing any of his edge, Carrabba explores new territory on So Impossible. "Whereas some of my other songs are rooted in angst or pain or anguish of some kind—not necessarily about relationships, although I'm somehow doomed that all my songs are always going to sound like relationship songs whether they are or aren't—this EP is endearing and openly hopeful," he says. "There's a kinetic energy; it's real exuberant, like how you can only feel when you're younger."
"Life has a way of giving you a hard shell; it's as simple as that. When you're younger, you don't necessarily have that. There are infinite possibilities in your head and your heart." Reminiscing about an episode from his own youth and tapping into that feeling, Carrabba wrote the four songs in roughly an hour. Immediately, he decided they were crap, but still played them for his brother, who insisted otherwise. When another friend heard them and wept openly, he decided they were keepers. He was right.
And yes, his mom approves. "She was stoked because this record was happy," he smiles. "'You never write happy songs!'"
Dashboard Confessional plays Graceland on Monday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 adv.