If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, then Chris Carrabba was the guy that launched a thousand dopey emo boys cresting the wave paved by Dashboard Confessional’s seminal 2001 album The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. The album was a milestone moment for sad, downtrodden dudes who could write hard-hitting, spite-filled acoustic songs. Carrabba spoke for the heartbroken who wanted to sing sad songs but turn the knife in at the time- with great effect. While The Places You Have Come To Fear the Most was the watershed, it was actually his debut, 2000’s The Swiss Army Romance, that had already proved his ability to master this craft. It is still perhaps, his finest record- unbothered by MTV appeal and radio charts.
His success post “Screaming Infidelities” (The Places You Have… version) propelled him into the spotlight and while his songs became bigger, his bitterness and spite slowly eroded as his music became more accessible. Now all these years later, Carrabba has decided to revisit three of his less acoustic albums, 2003’s A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, 2006’s Dusk and Summer, and 2009’s Alter The Ending, to give them a more “old-school” Dashboard makeover under the appropriate title Now Is Then Is Now. Stripping them of their electric, full-band composition, the immediate response to listening to the 2019 versions of these albums is that they finally do sound like songs that would have naturally come after his first two albums. The original versions had a few hit songs “Hands Down”, “Belle of the Boulevard”, “Stolen”, but the majority of these releases were so watered down that you’d have trouble remembering or picking any, in particular, to stand out amongst the tepid rock/alternative offerings that they shared the airwaves with.
These new versions are a nice reminder of Carrabba’s once-unique songwriting and acerbic nuance that made his songs stand out in the first place. It is most evident in the songs outside of his hits- where once bland songs like “Reason to Believe” are given a little acoustic venom. Even softer songs like “Bend and Not Break” sound much better in their stripped back guise. The new version of Alter The Ending (an album when originally sounded like it was made to soundtrack every WB teen show of its time) shows that underneath all the candy floss alterna-pop, lies the black heart of a biting voice (how much better does “Everybody Learns From Disaster” sound?) and bitter strings.
Dashboard’s best “big song”, 2004’s “Vindicated”, is a nice inclusion to the reworked Dusk and Summer. Along with it comes a version of the title track that features its original lyrics. Carrabba has said that he’s preferred the original version of “Dusk and Summer”, and that he wished he had kept the original lyrics; “I found the original handwritten lyrics to Dusk and Alter before there was any critiques leveled at them. I looked at them and those were some of my best lyrics I’ve written. I should have known that and trusted myself. I was able to correct a mistake…”
That last sentiment perhaps, best summarises Now Is Then Is Now. Not that these three albums were terrible to begin with, they just lacked that distinct personality that Carrabba had exhibited in his earliest material. They’re not suddenly great, but now they’re closer, at least aurally, to the work people found interesting in the first place. Listeners of Dashboard who first gravitated towards the material found on the So Impossible EP or The Swiss Army Romance, did so because the music was not only accessible but distinctly personal with an acoustic nonconformity that became his signature. His music is best served with a healthy spoonful of venom and anger- piloted by his voice, often lost amongst the orchestrated full band sound and calculated pop of his work since. He’s been able to recapture that only on occasion- not ironically on the acoustic The Shade of Poison Trees– but now, as it seems, what is old is new again. And thankfully, like most things in life, the tried and true, the old and sure, remain the better option.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Pine – Pine
Pine’s debut album is a kind of hypnotic melancholia
Where did Ottawa’s Pine come from? It’s a question worth asking after listening to their painfully gorgeous self-titled debut album. Pine use the phrase “doom and gloom never sounded so sweet” to describe their sound, and true to that, this 11-track outing is filled with the kind of hypnotic melancholia that became the playbook for a great many Midwestern emo bands that emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s. The biggest difference here is that while Pine have the heartbreak down pat, their musical sense of loss is lifted slightly by the airy, more wistful sounds of their guitar-strewn songs. Sure, there’s a lot that sounds like a great Mineral record or a Gloria Record album, but there’s also traces of Florida indie/emo band The Rocking Horse Winner and at times, bands like Rainer Maria.
Pine are buoyed by the great vocal work of Darlene Deschamps. Her voice soars through tracks like “Memento” and the terrific “Lusk”. The latter in particular is a great example of how Pine lull you into a sense of calm before it explodes in a collage of symphonic distortion and post-rock twinkling. In “Sunder” they ascend to louder, more expansive sounds. The song is a great combination of thick, fuzzy guitars, mid-tempo percussion work, and that pained vocal delivery that gives the song an extra punch in the guts.
The album took an impressive 2 years to finish, and you can hear the trials and tribulations of that gestation period through the songs. There’s pain, sadness, anger and frustration in songs like the intro “Within You” and the more new emo-esque “Swollen”, but also beauty, and as the album concludes, a sense of incredible catharsis. The record SOUNDS great too, with production values (by a production team that includes Will Yip, who has helmed records by Circa Survive, Braid, Saosin, and the Bouncing Souls to name a few) adding to the grand cinematic finish of the record.
For those who love what emo was in the mid to late 90s will find much to like about Pine just as much as those who like Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock brethren. Pine have been crafting their sound over the last few years and while their previous EP Pillow Talk showed a solid foundation, this new self-titled record is the work of a band close to the height of their abilities. Moving, beautiful, and littered with life’s roller coaster of emotions as songs, Pine is definitely recommended listening.