As the initial frontman of Further Seems Forever, Chris Carrabba had already established his bona fide rock credentials by the time Dashboard Confessional took off in the early 2000s. He was an authentic rocker who felt enough confidence not to rock, who didn't cry when tattoo needles pierced his skin but openly wept during cathartic performances. Those live shows were the crux of Carrabba's manic appeal; while spinning tales of heartbreak and mistrust, he would invariably call upon the support of his audience, asking them to sing along with his tremulous voice. Dashboard Confessional didn't spawn a scene as much as it did a support group -- a gathering of loyal fans who, like their emocore demigod, were unafraid to make their misery known. But time moves on, tastes change, and acoustic-fueled solo albums can't sustain an artist forever. Dashboard Confessional steadily grew in size and sound, with Carrabba assembling a permanent band and adding electric guitars to the group's repertoire. By the time Dusk and Summer arrived in 2006, pianos and violins had also been thrown into the mix, with Carrabba working alongside famed producers Don Gilmore and Daniel Lanois to fashion a summery brand of adult contemporary pop/rock. It made for an engaging listen, but Dusk and Summer still seemed like the product of someone other than Carrabba.
Perhaps that's why The Shade of Poison Trees follows so closely on Summer's heels and marks a return to Dashboard's earlier material, with nary a violin in sight. Carrabba may be reclaiming his old sound in an attempt to reclaim his old audience, and while such intentions would be a far cry from the D.I.Y. spirit that fueled Dashboard's humble beginnings, the songs are good enough to make the change worthwhile. It's been awhile since Carrabba last ditched a wide, expansive sound in favor of something smaller; he's grown up since then, and Poison Trees takes strength in the maturity of its 30-something songwriter. While his emotions still run rampant, they're smartly controlled and constructed into concise pop songs -- only one of which exceeds the three-minute mark. If a track like "The Rush" had appeared on the band's debut album, its life-affirming chorus would have been shouted by Carrabba's rickety tenor. Here, however, the singer flips into a stylish falsetto to hit the high notes, with harmonies and cyclical guitar riffs anchoring the passion below. That's exactly what has been missing from Dashboard Confessional's catalog thus far -- an anchor -- and The Shade of Poison Trees is tastefully grounded by such pop sensibilities. "Thick as Thieves" is as catchy as anything Carrabba has ever written, with minimalist electric guitars leaving an uncluttered path for a genuinely irresistible melody. The song is flanked by two of the album's best acoustic numbers -- "Where There's Gold..." and "Keep Watch for the Mines" -- both of which relocate arena rock to the cozy confines of a coffeehouse. Those highlights comprise the first quarter of the album, and even though Poison Trees loses some steam toward its conclusion, its maturity sets Dashboard Confessional back on track.