Sunday, March 6, 2016

Twin Forks - Twin Forks

Where’s that next Dashboard Confessional album? Ever since 2009’s Alter the Ending, the band’s Butch Walker-produced, pop-fest of a sixth record, things have been largely silent from the legendary emo-pop project that launched a million AIM away messages more than a decade ago. Not that frontman Chris Carrabba has exactly been taking it easy. In 2011, he was doing an anniversary album tour for his debut record, 2000’s The Swiss Army Romance, and last year, he reconvened his post-hardcore band, Further Seems Forever, for a comeback album called Penny Black. For the most part, however, fans have been left wondering what was next for Carrabba and whether Alter the Ending was, well…the ending for Dashboard Confessional.

Carrabba’s latest musical endeavor, an alt-folk band called Twin Forks, has done little to answer those questions, but is providing a nice enough distraction at the same time. Last fall, the group – Carrabba, the Narrative’s Suzie Zeldin, Bad Books’ Ben Homola, and producer Jonathan Clark - caught eyes and ears when they unleashed a self-titled debut EP for the Twin Forks project. For the most part, the five-song EP was upbeat, kick-drum driven folk, rendered in the same vein as recent records from bands like the Lumineers and the Head and the Heart. Carrabba’s gift for melody was still intact, filtered now through a lens of backcountry roots music and dusty folk textures. The crisp, slick production Walker had brought to Alter the Ending was gone, replaced by a rougher vocal tone for Carrabba, while Dashboard’s growing reliance on sensitive balladry was largely supplanted for raucous, clap-along folk music. It wasn’t a dynamic EP by any means, but it was an enjoyable one, and it had me excited to get my hands on the band’s eventual full-length work.

So imagine my surprise and satisfaction when, in early January, an email showed up in my inbox providing me with a full stream of the as-yet unreleased album - also a self-titled effort - almost a month and a half in advance. Twin Forks the album compares favorably to Twin Forks the EP in every way. Despite the fact that we’ve already heard half of these songs before, Twin Forks manages to provide a completely fresh experience. Where the EP focused largely on the upbeat side of the band – or rather, the side that the band wished to display to live audiences – the LP provides a new sense of pacing, atmosphere, and versatility thanks to a set of some of the finest ballads Carrabba has ever written. Carrabba’s downtempo numbers have been moving in a folky direction for a while, from the stunning title track of 2006’s viciously underrated Dusk and Summer to the last three or four songs from Alter the Ending. Given the opportunity to embrace that style fully, Carrabba unleashes a flurry of heartfelt and earnest songs here, all awash in mandolin, acoustic guitar, and stomp-clap rhythms. From the ballads to the barnstormers, it’s a trip worth taking.

The songs that Twin Forks included on the EP – “Back to You,” “Something We Just Know,” “Cross My Mind,” “Can’t Be Broken,” and “Scraping up the Pieces” – sound even better now than they did last fall. Freed from their truncated and single-minded EP, these songs get a new lease on life. Despite the fact that the recordings haven’t changed a bit from what we’ve already heard, it’s tough to listen to a song like “Can’t Be Broken” – repurposed here as a stirring album opener – and not feel like it’s reached a higher place. Similarly, the kick-stomping “Back to You” – the song that opened the EP – feels somehow even more vibrant here as it flows into the set’s first ballad, “Kiss Me Darling.” While Carrabba’s crystalline, boyish tenor voice is as a lovely as always on the latter, it’s Zeldin who steals the show, using her lone solo verse on the album to melt hearts and make you fall in love with her. A late recruit to the band, Zeldin provides glowing vocal harmonies throughout Twin Forks, but her verse on “Kiss Me Darling” gives us reason to hope that there will be another Twin Forks record – if only to give this talented girl a chance to take the lead on a song or two.

Not that Carrabba’s strong guiding hand can ever be doubted. On the contrary, the legendary scene frontman delivers some of his best vocal performances here, from the earnest pop balladry of “Plans” – about as close as this album gets to “Stolen” – to the dusky summer night chill-out of “Reasoned and Roughened” (“It’s 90 degrees and it ain’t even May,” Carrabba sings on the verse; we should all be so lucky). From top to bottom Twin Forks never lulls or disappoints. It lacks the stratospheric high points that nearly every Dashboard album had (“Screaming Infidelities” from Swiss Army Romance, “The Brilliant Dance” from The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, the bookends from A Mark, A Mission…, “So Long, So Long” from Dusk and Summer, and “Until Morning” from Alter the Ending) but it makes up for it by being the most consistently solid album that Carrabba has ever been a part of. From the energetic, handclap folk tracks that ended up on the EP to more restrained album cuts like “Danger” and “Done is Done,” Twin Forks lacks a single weak point.

Closing track “Who’s Looking Out” provides a poetic lullaby to a lovely album, and it’s a truly perfect way to conclude the first chapter of Twin Forks. Singing over a gentle acoustic strum, Carrabba delivers one lilting lyric (“I’m a bum working on my last can, wonderin’ where my life ran/Lost it in the wind and didn’t know”) after another (“I’m a shoe hanging on a phone wire, screw sticking in an old tire/I’m something someone lost along the way”). These striking pieces of imagery make us think about all of the debris left broken, decrepit, and forgotten in our path as we move forward, and just as Carrabba was once singing all about broken hearts and best deceptions, he’s now thinking about life from the perspective of someone who is older, wiser, and more in tune with the way time washes things away. It’s a lingering end to the album, recalling similarly sun-dusted odes from his past (“Dusk and Summer,” my personal favorite Carrabba song, comes instantly to mind), but clearly pointing its compass toward a very different destination. With almost five years now separating us from the last Dashboard album, there’s no indication as to what that band’s future holds. However, with albums as comfortable and likable as Twin Forks, there’s simply no reason to mourn Carrabba’s decision to give this new band his full focus for the time being.

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