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Paradise by the Dashboard Light

That which is too silly to be said is instead sung, claimed Voltaire. Which may explain why Chris Carrabba, the compact Boca Ratonian who leads Dashboard Confessional, is well on the way to achieving god-like status.

A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, Dashboard Confessional's follow-up to 2001's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, effectively blends the intimate and the epic in the way we've come to expect. At the least, "Hands Down," the album's leadoff single, will enjoy a ride on the radio. At the other extreme, A Mark could end up catapulting Carrabba into the permanent firmament.

You know you've made the canon when Rolling Stone commissions an oil-paint caricature of you to lead off its record review section (like the one Cynthia Von Buhler did in the August 21 issue, creating a haloed Carrabba holding his bloody heart against a tattooed sleeve). Awarding the new Dashboard Confessional album four stars, Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield deifies Carrabba as the "punk singer-songwriter with the acoustic guitar, the tormented soul, a haircut he borrowed from James Dean, and a voice that came from you and me."

Blender magazine finds room for Carrabba at number 41 on its Hot 100 list. That means he's the reigning alt heartthrob; odds are 12-to-1 that he'll be back on the list again next year. Just a few pages later, Blender dedicates an entire double truck to all things Dashboard Confessional, including a glossy, color, full-page photo of Chris, smoldering in a black T-shirt, green wristband, and marble-chiseled jaw. "Chris Carrabba clinches the crown of Most Sincere Man Alive," yells the headline. The story observes that "the band's time is only just now coming." Really? The DVD for Dashboard's MTV Unplugged is already past platinum. Is it possible that Carrabba's arc hasn't yet begun to decline?

USA Today's Edna Gunderson is similarly smitten with Carrabba's sincerity, noting that his "strengths lie in wild mood swings that never ring false. His charismatic croon conveys believable anguish and joy." London's Guardian is less fawning, stating, "There is little remarkable about Carrabba's voice or his band's tunefully generic alt-rock, but his witty, humane songwriting is almost worth weeping and wailing over."

In Entertainment Weekly, former Spin writer and Guided by Voices member Jim Greer has this to say in defense of A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar: "Credit producer Gil Norton's (Pixies, Counting Crows, Foo Fighters) uncanny arranging skills. And credit Carrabba's ear for melody for A Mark's heartfelt heft."

That perennial bastion of journalistic integrity, the New York Times, proclaimed Dashboard's new album "a remarkable disc that may be the year's most important rock record." Wow. So Carrabba's second coming is going to miss the dreaded sophomore slump and soar through the goalposts to the roar of packed stadiums? Is Mark Mission Brand Scar the bestest record of the summer, nay, the entire year? Can Chris really keep turning whine into gold?

Not everyone is happily riding on the Emo Express, however. Carrabba's introspective sappiness is anathema to many. The notably cantankerous website remains unconvinced. "The pinnacle of mall emo," reads the review for 2001's Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. "Pure evil.", also counted as contrarians, calls Places You Have Come "Chris Carrabba's exploration of his eggshell psyche, recorded onto intimate plastic for us to pine along to. Imagine ten better-than-average blog entries set to remedial acoustic guitar. Then try to imagine why you would want to listen to that. The drama club hysterics and 10th grade poetry that Carrabba spews out quickly wears its welcome thin." But as Pitchfork is loathe to admit, "for someone to bare his soul so completely, so vulnerably, is a powerful, almost libido-like thing; it can't be sabotaged by insignificantsia like interesting song structures, original melodies, or skill on the fretboard. It's from the heart, man. It doesn't need to be good."

Maybe not, but something needs to change for Carrabba not to develop into a serious embarrassment. Watching him magically transform from singer for a so-so local Christian punk band to pied piper of the disenfranchised felt thrilling, Bandwidth admits. But what remains is something like a dull toothache after too many waffle cones. We're waiting for reruns of the Dashboard Confessional Dating Game or American Emo-Idol or Who Wants to Be a Brokenhearted Wuss?

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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