Daring to grow and change

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a dangerous thing Chris Carrabba has done on his new album.

With solo-acoustic songs jammed full of blistering emotion, Carrabba's one-man band, Dashboard Confessional, tapped into the omnipresent current of angst that underpins the existence of suburban teens throughout America.

His fans - mostly young - connected so powerfully with the songs on The Swiss Army Romance and its 2001 successor, The Places You Have Come To Fear the Most, that Carrabba's concerts turned into sold-out sing-alongs, ritualistic catharses where kids could revel in romantic idealism while holding tight to their lurking suspicions of inevitable loneliness.

The fans' wholesale embrace of those searing songs made Carrabba famous, earned him awards and marked him as an earnest young man willing to share the depths of his soul.

Then, he tinkered with the formula.

The Connecticut native expanded Dashboard Confessional beyond himself, adding musicians and, therefore, instrumentation to the sort of spare musical vignettes that got by just fine, thank you, with only acoustic guitar for accompaniment.

It could have come off otherwise, but Carrabba's risk is the listener's reward on A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, available today on Vagrant Records.

The album shows musical growth so monumental, it's nearly impossible to quantify. The 13 songs on A Mark embrace the spirit of Carrabba's earlier ruminations, but the heartfelt acoustic bludgeonings have blossomed into full-scale songs with sophisticated arrangements and well-crafted melodies.

He loses none of the emotion that made Dashboard songs so compelling in the first place; he's just built better accommodations for it with the power-chord riffage of "Hands Down" and the jangly indie-pop feel of "Hey Girl."

Carrabba also pushes himself vocally in a way we haven't heard before. He exchanges his passionate yowl for quiet intensity on "Carry This Picture," a bashful song of infatuated wonderment: "Color the coast with your smile/it's the most genuine thing I've ever seen/I was so lost, but now I believe," he sings.

Lest you get the wrong idea, Carrabba hasn't completely reinvented himself or anything - he's back to full-bore belting on the choruses to "Bend and Not Break" and "Several Ways To Die Trying," among others, but the full-band song structures better support his voice.

He's still singing first- and second-person songs, too, but the lyrics on A Mark are more thoughtful than overwrought, as if Carrabba has gained some perspective and is better equipped to deal with unrequited love and the fragility of human relationships.

New band-mates Scott Schoenbeck on bass; John Lefler on guitar, organ, piano and backing vocals; and Mike Marsh on drums and backing vocals add depth to the songs with their always tasteful contributions to Carrabba's tunes. The guitar interplay between Carrabba and Lefler is especially convincing on "Hey Girl," and Lefler adds ornamental fills to the acoustic foundations of "As Lovers Go" and "Carve Your Heart Out Yourself."

Whether fans will embrace Dashboard Confessional's new sound and direction remains to be seen, and that's the dangerous part for an artist who has just finished establishing himself.

Yet Carrabba's willingness to grow and expand as a musician makes that irrelevant from an artistic standpoint - whether A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar sells a thousand copies or a million, it's unquestionably the best album he's recorded and among the best records released this year.

Dashboard Confessional A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar (Vagrant) *** 1/2

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