Dashboard Confessional, 'MTV Unplugged 2.0' (Vagrant)

8
MTV Unplugged 2.0
Critical Mass
Label: Vagrant

by Alex Pappademas

In interviews, when asked which songwriters he most reveres, Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba almost always mentions Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Weird, huh? Artists who name-check Wilson tend to be introverted indie-rock shemps, guys with ideas for lo-fi symphonies rattling around inside their bed heads. They recognize Wilson--a damaged soul building studio sand castles and struggling to express with a French horn chart all the emotions that confounded him in real life--as their paunchy spiritual forefather.

Carrabba, a punk who plays acoustic guitar (and seems to approach other instrumentation, like bass and drums, with trepidation), is not one of these guys. He's covered with tattoos, and he did time in Florida emo band Further Seems Forever. But it's no mystery what Carrabba sees in Wilson. He was, hands down, the most emo of the Beach Boys, a grown man who kept writing about fundamentally teenage issues because, in his heart, he never stopped being 16, clumsy, and shy. Carrabba's songs come from a similarly vulnerable place, and on MTV Unplugged 2.0, he and his appealingly dorky backing band--a guitarist/pianist, bassist, and drummer who look like Ben Folds Six, Seven, and Eight--perform them how they were meant to be heard: with an audience of impassioned teenagers singing every line.

Carrabba's voice isn't the most versatile instrument--he alternates between a plaintive, almost tearful whisper and a mic-scorching howl. And in this bare-bones setting, his punk-utilitarian approach to guitar becomes a liability. But as he works his way through a set list that draws on both his LPs--2000's Swiss Army Romance and 2001's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most--and EPs like 2001's excellent So Impossible, his strengths as a songwriter overwhelm the whole "chops" problem. He's a master of the zoom lens, writing passionately about small moments--trying to decide whether to wear sneakers or flip-flops on a date, finding your ex's hair on your pillow--that shake lives to the core.

And in a world where actual young people like Christina Aguilera sing about relationships with the weary cynicism of fortysomething barflies, there's something fresh and courageous about a song like "So Impossible," in which two kids awkwardly talk about maybe meeting up at a party later, flush with optimism, struggling to play it cool. At times, this unfailingly earnest music can be hokier than a very special 7th Heaven--at the end of "So Impossible," Carrabba asks, "Do you like...long drives and brown eyes and guys that just / Don't quite fit in?" like he's composing a Makeoutclub.com personal ad. But his hokum rings true.

Even at their most diaristic, Carrabba's songs reach for the universal over the specific--they're conduits for an audience's emotions. So the best way to experience this record is via the DVD it's bundled with, which contains the Unplugged performance as it originally aired on MTV2. The set--a corner studio at MTV's New York City headquarters--will be familiar to anyone who's watched the network's teen-pop flagship TRL. Carrabba, handsome and pomaded, could be Carson Daly, if Daly had been raised on peanut butter and Minor Threat. But the content is so un-TRL that it feels like television from another dimension:The fans don't just sing the songs back to Carrabba, they actually start and finish them. No matter how far Carrabba has moved from his punk roots creatively or commercially, the performance does what punk is supposed to do: It sizes up the barrier between the "talent" and the paying customers, and then puts a boot through it.

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