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The Shade of Poison Trees
Artist: Dashboard Confessional
Label: Vagrant Records
Length:> 12 Tracks / 33:37

I'll never forget the first time I heard Chris Carrabba. It was a summer evening and I was trying fruitlessly to fall asleep lying in a tent on the hard ground. My sleeping bag offered barely enough cushioning to make the hard ground bearable. I decided that rather than tossing and turning for the next hour, I may as well have a listen through one of the records I'd purchased earlier that day: Further Seems Forever's The Moon is Down.

I was greeted with the building roar of a landing plane, and as the guitars began to swirl around me a voice broke in. Awkward sounding at times, but littered with intense emotions and utilizing an excellent command of English lyric. Further Seems Forever went on to become one of my all-time favourites. Chris Carrabba, however, had left the band just before the album was released.

After poking around a bit, I discovered that he had left to pursue a solo project entitled Dashboard Confessional. Intrigued, I fired up my 56k modem (this was 2001) and downloaded a pair of songs: "The Best Deceptions" and "Anyone, Anyone". After that, my story is like many others who love Dashboard Confessional: Heard a couple songs, fell in love with the unrestrained passion of it all, took up guitar on principle. There was just something about the bluntness, the honesty, and the raw emotion on display that was utterly gripping

Since then, it's been an interesting journey. Dashboard fans will often be heard referring to "Old Dashboard", by which they refer to Chris' first handful of offerings: 2000's Drowning EP and The Swiss Army Romance, as well as 2001's The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most and So Impossible EP. These early releases were uniform in that they were very instrumentally minimalistic. Additionally, they heavily relied on Chris' growing strength as a vocalist (and in some ways his then-inexperience) as well as his keen ear for layering acoustic guitars.

In the time since then, Dashboard Confessional as a project has evolved and been redefined numerous times, with 2003's A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar and 2006's Dusk And Summer going in much more of an arena rock and Americana direction. Dashboard's popularity soared as these new sounds made Chris and his rotating lineup of band mates far more accessible to the general public than his earlier and perhaps more intimate works.

I heard a lot about this record before its release. People were saying it was a "return to form," that Chris had retaken the reins and brought back the "classic" Dashboard sound. Earlier this year, the independently released album of covers The Wire Tapes Volume 1 hinted at the same conclusion. However, after spending a month with The Shade of Poison Trees, I would venture to suggest that this isn't really the case. Certainly, when held relative to A Mark or Dusk and Summer, it is easy to see why purists have been rejoicing: There's nary an electric guitar to be found on this record, and very little in the way of percussion. These are things it shares in common with the early records. The Shade of Poison Trees isn't those records, much as it relies on acoustic guitars and minimalistic layering (hardly another instrument to be found) just as they do.

This similarity serves to handily showcase an important difference between "Old Dashboard" and this new offering: the measures to which Chris' strength as a vocalist has grown since So Impossible and Places_ For many, the gravelly waver of his vocals on the early recordings was one of their most endearing qualities - but for those who appreciate and value growth in the artists they enjoy, it is heartening to listen closely to the far greater measure of vocal command and maturity shown on this record.

Lyrically, this record is rather removed from the tragedies and laments of Places and Swiss Army Romance. Shade finds Chris continuing in the excellence of his ability to weave stories, but delving into his more recent conceptual realms: introspection and nostalgia. As always, a majority of the content is still firmly grounded in the discordant dynamics of male-female relationships. However, on Shade the places he goes with that constant theme follows the more recent pattern of A Mark and Dusk by noticeably making more variable what exactly can fit into that constant.

By means of summary: Chris Carrabba's vocal abilities have grown in leaps and bounds in the past few years and this album showcases them excellently. Lyrically and structurally, the tracks are as strong as any he's written and show a depth and maturity of content few could have ever anticipated five or six years ago. Sonically this album has dropped the rock and Americana of the previous pair of releases and harkens back to classic Dashboard, while maintaining a lot of the musical sensibility and forward progression that Chris has undergone in the past few years. I highly recommend it to anyone somewhat alienated by the direction of A Mark and/or Dusk and Summer, and also to anyone just getting into Dashboard Confessional for the very first time. This is a strong record; an enjoyable listen with enough depth and clarity to give it the staying power of anything Chris Carrabba has put his efforts into up to this point.

The Shade of Poison Trees is not "Old Dashboard", and it's all the stronger for it.

Standout tracks: These Bones, The Shade of Poison Trees, Little Bombs, Clean Breaks.

Jerry Bolton 30/10/2007

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