Dashboard is just plain creepy on live CD/DVD

by Lance Kramer | 1/16/03 6:00am

On the DVD that accompanies Dashboard Confessional's new live album, "MTV Unplugged v2.0," a small audience sings along with almost every song -- something to be expected by loyal followers at a show like this.

But their involvement with the music extends far beyond a casual connection to the music -- they are under its spell.

There are times when the camera focuses on audience members who appear to be in a trance. It's not simply a matter of enjoying the music -- they're overcome: their jaws dropped, eyes glossed over and thinking centers of the brain shut off. With their fists raised, the fans' uncanny devotion seems an uncharacteristic response to frontman Chris Carrabba's acoustic songs about the long, heartbreaking road to turning 21.

Carrabba's simple, honest and pleasant ballads provide emotional compassion through music for millennial, suburban teens who was just a little lonely, a little confused and a little befuddled by life and love.

His soft voice and lightly strum-med acoustic guitar give the impression of a best friend sitting next to you right there in the room, singing your favorite tune.

On his first album "The Swiss Army Romance," the lyrics were poetically straightforward and while not cutting-edge, they were accessible and meaningful. The vocals could clearly be heard over the guitar, providing an almost artificially clear sound.

Listening to "Romance" was not so much like listening to 10 unique songs as it was like tuning in for a 30-odd-minute emotional experience. The songs sounded strikingly alike and flowed into each other -- not necessarily a bad thing; in all, it was an impressive debut. But there was an expectation that Carrabba would eventually grow out of his sophomoric innocence.

At that point in Carrabba's career, Dashboard didn't get much radio play at all -- Carrabba was too quiet, perhaps too emotional, not peppy enough for radio audiences.

But soon enough the emo wave caught on, and thousands of teenagers flocked to Carrabba's ability to musically express their own feelings. Carrabba paired up with drummer Mike Marsh and released his second full album, "The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most."

His music became more marketable. Songs like "Screaming Infidelities," a song originally released on "Romance," began to spring up on radio waves nationwide in its re-recorded form from "The Places," where the song lost much of its characteristic intimacy in place of more diverse musical accompaniment and a more upbeat tempo.

Dashboard Confessional's latest release continues the effort to replay all of Carrabba's songs this way. "MTV Unplugged v2.0" was recorded in 2002 during the former solo artist's appearance on the popular MTV2 show, and listeners will find inside the album's case not only the 15-song CD but also a DVD version of the performance.

It's on this DVD that Dashboard's most unique and somewhat disturbing characteristics become visible.

In a recent Spin article, the author questions whether Carrabba has indeed stolen their minds, as listeners "gaze at him with a look of limp obedience common to shell-shock victims and the newly lobotomized."

Carrabba starts the show with solo versions of the title track from "Swiss Army Romance" and 2001's "The Best Deceptions" before his accompaniment steps in with "Remember to Breathe."

We're immediately introduced to Carrabba's feminine, semi-nerdy voice, which sounds about an octave too high. His voice curiously teeters on the brink of cracking for almost the entire show. When he hits his falsetto, which happens a few times throughout, he rarely register a crisp note.

But I suppose that's just part of the Dashboard Confessional experience. Carrabba's voice has a familiar fallibility -- just like the teenagers who make up his main listening audience.

All in all, the album doesn't add much to the already-released recordings the songs are taken from. For a casual listener, "Unplugged" will probably be a waste.

For the die-hard fan, the album is a must, an addition to Dashboard's relatively small collection of songs. This especially goes for the DVD -- which is only available with the CD. The DVD really adds nothing to the CD besides a visual image of the concert -- though it's worth watching the concert recording just to experience the peculiar way in which Carrabba commands musical and emotional control over his listeners.

With the DVD, home viewers can watch Carrabba on stage front-and-center, clad in multi-colored tattoos covering his entire forearms. The sight begs the question of how Carrabba, perhaps the most unlikely candidate, came to lead his army of Kleenex-toting rockers.

Undoubtedly, Carrabba has attracted a slew of swooning teenage girls through this carefully manicured "bad guy, tender heart" guise.

Carrabba looks remarkably like that fashionably unkempt guy on the Herbal Essences commercial who fixes the supermodel's car in the middle of nowhere -- but with feelings.

And it's with this image that Carrabba will probably continue to crank out these overbearingly sincere odes to youthfulness. It's somewhat disappointing that Carrabba hasn't really moved on from what initially put him on the map -- his songs still sound too much alike, and adding drums to his original acoustic tracks is a gimmick that can only last so long.

If "Unplugged" marks the end of Carrabba's youthful experimentation, all the better. As he says himself in "The Swiss Army Romance," it might just be time to "grow up fast, grow up fast" and try something new for a change.