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A Blank, A Cipher, A Vacuum, A Void


Dashboard Confessional: A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar

Vagrant, 2003

Rating: 2.5



Posted: August 18, 2003

By Laurence Station

Boca Raton-based skate-punk Chris Carrabba has successfully evolved his emotive, acoustic side project, Dashboard Confessional, to a TRL-mobilized, full-time gig, as evidenced by last year's surprisingly successful Unplugged release. Of course, the momentum for the young singer-songwriter has been building since 2001's sing-along-to-every-damn-song The Places You've Come to Fear the Most. A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, then, is Carrabba's stab at the big time. He's upgraded the sound by adding a full, genuinely alt-rocking band, and even tossed in a little faux-falsetto to beef up his raw, appealingly unpolished vocal pleadings.

As with Carrabba's earlier work, though, the problem with A Mark is the utter lack of personalized context in which his heart-on-your-sleeve songs operate. Every cut is a generic accounting of personal-pronoun Romeos and the ubiquitous "you" they pine for. Carrabba invests nothing of what could remotely be called a persona in this music -- thus, in what assuredly is a savvy marketing move, every person listening can replace the "I" and "you" with whomever he or she wishes. Talk about covering the entire demographic. For the chivalrous geeks, Carrabba offers "Hands Down," in which "I" doesn't want anything more than to simply hold "you." Things have soured on "Rapid Hope Loss", as evidenced by the sharper chord changes, tense bass lines and dense drumbeats as "I" assures "you" that "all you got is all you're gonna get". On the spare, acoustic "Ghost of a Good Thing," "I" assures us he will die for love, while the clichéd slow-buildup-to-big-power-chords finish on "Morning Calls" reinforces Carrabba's core message to his legions of lonely-hearts fans: Stay positive, even when the skies look darkest. Trying to woo a new "you" on "As Lovers Go," the earnest "I" veers dangerously close to the syrupy pap-rock musical territory that Air Supply, back in the early '80s, despoiled for several generations to come.

On the upside, A Mark sports a fuller, if still not particularly memorable, sound. And Carrabba's lyrical skills have, believe it or not, improved since Places. There's nothing here as grating as the melodramatic teen blog entry of "Your hair, it's everywhere/ screaming infidelities/ and taking its wear," from "Screaming Infidelities." "Bend and Not Break" even hints at darker intentions (though, to be fair, Carrabba probably had nothing nearly as sinister in mind): "Careful not to wake you/ fearing conversation/ it's better just to hold you /and keep you pacified." The restraining order can't be too far behind, and such menace adds much needed edge to A Mark, which generally posits an overly earnest, romance-novel ideal of the male suitor. Aside from being one of the best sounding songs on A Mark, "Bend and Not Break" proves Carrabba may sport the potential to explore even murkier relationship territory down the road -- and that's an encouraging notion, given his less than insightful songwriting to date.

Regardless of the overall vacuity of the material, Carrabba has found his niche -- courting a whole new generation of teenagers who desperately want a soundtrack to their messily convoluted and hyper-dramatized early romantic years. Those diehards will doubtless devour A Mark, and take its title to heart. For the rest of us, the album proves little more than the vapid musings of an emotional cipher, signifying nothing particularly interesting or relevant.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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