The Shade of Poison Trees
asting off his familiar full band set-up, and with a swag of unusually personal songs in hand, Florida singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba went into the studio and recorded a spare, mostly acoustic full length. In 2000, the band was Carrabba’s Christian rock-affiliated group Further Seems Forever, and the album was The Swiss Army Romance, a solo project which he released under the name Dashboard Confessional. In 2007, the band abandoned is the expanded, electric incarnation of Dashboard Confessional, and the album is The Shade of Poison Trees, Carrabba’s return to—in his words—“just a kid and a guitar kind of thing.”
After The Swiss Army Romance and its similarly Spartan follow-up, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, Carrabba spent the next two albums filling out Dashboard Confessional’s sound. The results were mixed: when the tunes remained strong the arrangements did no harm, but even the best tracks of the period, most notably the joyous, unabashed love song “Hands Down,” sounded better when Carrabba was accompanied by a room full of singing fans rather than a studio full of electric guitars.
The Dashboard Confessional frontman writes his songs as if they were private conversations, but he belts them out like he wants the whole world to hear them. That's why Dashboard shows are such affective, communal experiences; concert halls full of strangers are roused to share the same clandestine discussion at the top of their lungs. And that's why Carrabba always sounds best alone with an acoustic guitar. These songs are dialogues and discussions; fuller arrangements only dilute their immediacy.
The Shade of Poison Trees is not a complete return to Swiss Army sparseness; the band’s full line up is credited in the liner notes, and the tracks are endowed with understated, but assuredly present, accompaniment. “The Widows Peak” is a bracing, somber piano ballad, and “The Rush” achieves its titular surge by augmenting acoustic strumming with warm synths and chiming guitars. But even the songs that aren’t solo Carrabba tracks have a palpable austerity, and from the beginning, it’s clear the reversion is a positive one. “Where there’s Gold…” sounds like the kind of song Carrabba had long stopped writing, an unembellished and candid track with a plain but winsome melody. The return to form continues with the following song, “Thick as Thieves” (it’s a tale of lovers as fugitives; Dashboard lyrics tend to be as effective when understood literally as they are metaphorically). But where “Thick as Thieves” succeeds by reminding of the work Carrabba produced in his prime, “Where there’s Gold…” goes one better by hinting that those days may not have passed.
The rest of the album can’t meet the impossibly high standard set by that opening pair, but it maintains an admirably lofty consistency. “Little Bombs” isn’t only a sprightly assault; it suggests the band has discovered a new application for its old heartbreak formula. Carrabba criticizes his subject’s “pre-emptive attacks,” scoffing, “You think your crimes are victimless,” and you begin to wonder: is that an ex-girlfriend or a president he’s attacking? With George W. Bush’s approval ratings plummeting from 90 to 30 per cent over the past six years, Carrabba’s turn as a lover scorned is an unexpectedly appropriate depiction of the American public’s affair with its head of state.
The lyrical digressions most prominently distinguish this from earlier Dashboard work; “Matters of Blood and Connection” is effectively Pulp’s “Common People” relocated across the Atlantic. Inelegantly written and crammed with lines like, “You went to prep school in Cambridge with daughters and sons of the privileged elite / Their fortunes from shipping and industry,” it exhibits a remove that would be entirely unimaginable within the journal-entry directness of the first two albums. What the song lacks in poeticism, though, it makes up for with a kind of earnest precision; Carrabba sounds so incensed that he is willing to sacrifice lyrical elegance for a more scathing denouncement.
Importantly, though, the band’s creative evolution arrives in a form that complements its strengths. Carrabba’s keening grandiloquence may have lost some of its most explicitly cathartic qualities, but The Shade of Poison Trees remains his best work in years. Perhaps that’s because the music is again living up to the name on the packaging; as a band playing hits, Dashboard is inconsistent, but as a kid and a guitar, Chris Carrabba has entire rooms singing his confessions.
Reviewed by: Jonathan Bradley
Reviewed on: 2007-10-23