True Confessional?

October 3, 2003


With his recent appearance on the cover of Spin magazine, Chris Carrabba -- better known as the singer, songwriter and driving force behind Dashboard Confessional -- has become the "face of emo" the way that Moby was deemed the prime exponent of techno or Kurt Cobain became the unwilling crown prince of grunge.

It's an unenviable position -- no artist wants to be held responsible for an entire genre, especially when it's one that produces far less great music than mediocre product--but with his new album, "A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar," debuting at No. 2 on Billboard's pop albums chart, his poster-boy good looks adorning every rock mag on the newsstands, and his band performing a sold-out show at the Aragon Ballroom tonight, Carrabba has had the role thrust upon him, whether he likes it or not.


*6:45 tonight

*Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence

*Sold out

"I would never go out there and say, 'I'm an emo singer,' " the 28-year-old artist told me the first time I interviewed him in March 2002, before three packed shows at the House of Blues. "Personally, if I was going to label these bands myself, I wouldn't use that word. I don't see how you classify Sunny Day Real Estate, the Promise Ring, Saves the Day, the Get Up Kids and Fugazi as one.

"But genre labels can be useful in the sense that there's some dude in some Podunk town where there is no alternative to the rock station, and there is no underground scene, and there is no indie-rock record store and no one else like him in that town, and instead of getting sucked into listening to country rock or the Backstreet Boys on MTV, once every couple of hours he gets to see this punk-rock stuff on MTV that's full of energy and he gets to feel the same thing I felt when I heard Green Day for the first time when I was 15, or even better, when I heard Operation Ivy and lost my mind."

Its auteur's protests aside, Dashboard epitomizes the best of what emo (short for "emocore" or "emotional punk") has become. The roots of the sound can be traced back to the early '80s, when a number of groups in Washington, D.C.'s hard-core punk scene (Embrace chief among them) began to pair intensely personal and heartfelt lyrics with their hyper-aggressive sounds.

As the genre matured, the music became more complex, marked with dramatic dynamic shifts and often complex time signatures, as well as contrasts with lighter sounds, such as the acoustic guitar that Carrabba often incorporates in his tunes.

Carrabba formed Dashboard Confessional in his native Boca Raton, Fla., in the late '90s after fronting a number of other bands, including Further Seems Forever and the Vacant Andies. From the beginning, he's been the primary musical force, recruiting other players as needed to flesh out his tuneful musical journal entries of lost love, frustrated romance and twentysomething angst.

Signed to the super-ambitious pseudo-indie Vagrant Records, Dashboard broke through to the mainstream audience of MTV's "Total Request Live" with 2001's "Screaming Infidelities" -- the musical equivalent of "The Breakfast Club" for a new generation of troubled teens. Carrabba followed with a pair of E.P.s in 2002, but anticipation was high for his next full album, though he claims that he didn't let the pressure get to him.

"I just went into the studio knowing that I was going to do what I always do," he told me recently. "I try not to worry about the commercial expectations, because all of that stuff is so far out of my control."

This might be true, but the deck was stacked in Dashboard's favor when Vagrant paired him with producer Gil Norton, the renowned producer of the Pixies, Belly and the Foo Fighters, among many other alternative-rock heroes. Carrabba tries to maintain a nonchalant attitude about the avalanche of media attention -- "I don't sit around reading my own press and saying, 'Hey, everybody's saying this about me!'" he told me -- but the music-industry hype is already prompting a backlash in some corners of the rock underground.

"If the record succeeds, it could do for emo what 'Nevermind' did for grunge," Spin noted in its cover story. "It will make Carrabba a media personality, a brand name, a rock star. It could also alienate the hordes of young fans who already see Carrabba as big brother, spiritual leader, and therapist rolled into one. Up until now, these fans have made the Dashboard experience into a communal phenomenon more or less on their own terms, passing around MP3s of his songs like sacred scrolls and turning his shows into lovelorn choir practices. Carrabba is not exactly their Bob Dylan -- the capital they've invested in him is personal, not political. But his ascension to the big leagues is their Bob-Dylan-going-electric, a stylistic transition that stings [for some] like a betrayal."

On the other hand, there's no denying that Dashboard's third studio album is its strongest offering to date. With a crisp and driving production, "A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar" mixes beautiful, tender and tuneful ballads such as "Ghost of a Good Thing" and "Carry This Picture" with more moving rockers such as "Hands Down" and "Rapid Hope Loss."

Yes, the earnest, hyper-romantic poetry of Carrabba's lyrics can be a bit much at times. Witness the opening couplet of "Hands Down": "Breathe in for luck, breathe in so deep/The air is blessed, you share with me." Or these lines from "Bend and Not Break": "I catalog these steps now, decisive and intentioned/Precise and patterned specifically to yours/I'm talented at breathing, especially exhaling/So that my chest will rise and fall with yours."

But the artist doesn't lack a sense of humor. "I don't think it's emasculating to say you feel something," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I'm not mopey, overly romantic or moved to tears at AT&T ads." And as modern-day James Taylor wannabes go, Carrabba is infinitely smarter, more genuine and more inspiring than John Mayer or the legions of Dave Matthews clones.

"Call me naive, but I still think that rock 'n' roll can mean something, even if it's only about affecting one person" he told me.

Call it emo or call it old-fashioned, but that's an attitude that's sorely need in rock today, and it's the reason why, in Dashboard Confessional's case, the hype is justified.