Spin Control

October 7, 2007


Dashboard Confessional, "The Shade of Poison Trees" (Vagrant) 4 star
Not content to settle for being the poster boy of the bleeding-heart, sensitive-soul emo movement, Chris Carrabba, a k a Dashboard Confessional, tried to remake himself as Bono on his last two albums, the bombastic but hollow "Dusk and Summer" (2006), which even borrowed U2 producer Daniel Lanois, and the equally pretentious "A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar" (2003). Fans longed for a return to the early and ultra-melodic "just a boy, his guitar and his poems" incarnation, and here he obliges them.

There's no denying that Carrabba is preferable in this nearly solo mode, hammering away at his acoustic guitar with minimal accompaniment from piano and some spare drums. But his undeniable flair for crafting affecting melodies doesn't outweigh his histrionic vocal delivery, which ranges from restrained moaning to tortured caterwauling, and that's a pretty big stumbling block. And then there are the lyrics.

Most of these 12 tunes chronicle the emotional turmoil that follows a shattered romance, Carrabba's favorite subject, though there are also forays into the existential angst of the trust-fund set, with none of Holden Caulfield's humor or self-awareness. ("With daughters and sons of privileged elite / The fortunes from shipping and industry / The futures in yacht clubs and tales," he sings in "Matters of Blood and Connection.") It's all so overwrought, so precious, so literary and so, well, confessional, you just have to laugh -- and question his sincerity.

Or, as Carrabba howls in "Thick as Thieves," "I am a sinner / I am a savior / I am a lie."


The Fiery Furnaces, "Widow City" (Thrill Jockey) 6 star
Though indie hipsters would be loathe to admit it, old-school progressive-rock fans who miss the otherworldly bleeps, squiggles and alien gurgles of guitarist Steve Hackett and the fanciful if inscrutable lyrical epics of Peter Gabriel may be thrilled with the sixth album from Oak Park siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, their first release for Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records. Yes, if orchestral popsters the Decemberists are the new Jethro Tull, the far stranger Fiery Furnaces are the new Genesis, circa "Selling England by the Pound" or "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway."

Much-buzzed underground favorites since "Gallowsbird's Bark" (2003), which showed considerable promise even if it didn't quite live up to the hype, the Friedbergers seemed to lose focus on their following efforts, with studio wizard and multi-instrumentalist Matthew overdoing the musical eclecticism in a sometimes-headache-inducing attempt to match the similarly sweeping, impressionistic and often confounding maze of his sister's lyrics. Those problems haven't completely disappeared: Aside from the straightforward opener, "The Philadelphia Grand Jury," I still have no idea what Eleanor is singing about, and I have no difficulty accepting her presumably sarcastic claim to have written the words with the help of a Ouija board.

"You can be surrounded by your 400 pomegranates and your broad brass shovels, but you still can't harvest sleep," Eleanor sings in "Wicker Whatnots." "When outta the corner of your eye you see one cherub ten cubits high / How do you arrange a room around a baby grand piano in the Arabian tinted library guest room in the two table dining room art gallery? / And here's one for your party room: an emergency cigarette behind glass!" Say what?

Thankfully, the singer's delivery is more enticing than ever, straddling an odd line between frenzied desperation and icy, Nico-like cool, and Matthew, possibly benefiting from the duo having expanded to a full band lineup, curbs his attention deficit disorder long enough to stay with each song's jumbled multitude of melodies and scattershot rhythms to hook the listener in. This is to say that the band still makes a sprawling mess -- with 16 tracks and more than an hour of music, it could certainly use an editor -- but "Widow City" is its best and most accessible mess yet.