Sunday, March 29, 2009

Week 44: "Hands Down" by Dashboard Confessional feat. Michael Stipe

In last week’s “song of the week” essay I discussed the ska musical genre. This week’s song is a good example of a different genre: Emo.

If this is a genre with which you are not familiar, you could do worse than to read Wikipedia’s entry on it. Put simply, emo is a genre of alternative rock that emerged from punk and hardcore. Whereas punk and hardcore bands directed their angst outwardly, towards injustice or the government or religion or authority generally, emo tends to direct feelings of angst, alienation, and confusion inwardly.

“Emo” is shorthand for emotional. Emo became known for “deeply personal, impassioned lyrics” and recurring thematic elements such as “nostalgia, romantic bitterness, and poetic desperation.”

Chris Carrabba’s band Dashboard Confessional was one of the first emo bands to attain significant mainstream success. Their breakthrough album, 2001’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, featured the hit single “Screaming Infidelities” as well as other noteworthy songs like “Again I Go Unnoticed” and “The Brilliant Dance.” Dashboard Confessional followed this up with another album in 2003 entitled A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar. “Hands Down” was the first single released off of this album.

My version of A Mark... came with a bonus DVD of Dashboard Confessional performing live covers of eight songs off of R.E.M.’s early-90s masterpiece Automatic for the People. In my opinion, the best moment on this DVD is when R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, gets up onstage and performs “Hands Down” as a duet with Chris Carrabba.

“Hands Down” begins with a repetitive guitar line followed by four beats on the cymbal. From there the song’s form consists of a verse and the chorus, then another verse and the chorus. Immediately following the second chorus the song immediately transitions into a prolonged bridge which slowly crescendos in the urgency of the vocals and the aggressiveness of the music. The lyrics to the bridge contain the poetically rendered narrative of a moment of adolescent romance.

Before you reach the bridge, there are sudden shifts in the song between the verses that are quieter and more subdued and the chorus where the emotion in Carrabba’s voice soars along with the guitars.

When Dashboard performs this song with Michael Stipe they trade parts of the song: Stipe takes the verses which he sings with elegance; Carrabba sings his heart out on the chorus. However, on this version of the song Michael Stipe takes over when the time comes for the bridge. As he begins he sings the song in an understated manner but as the guitars and drums pick up Stipe begins to raise his voice. Towards the end of the bridge, Stipe’s voice has morphed into a perfect imitation of emo singing. The moment is musically awesome.

Unfortunately Youtube does not have the video of Dashboard Confessional performing “Hands Down” with Michael Stipe. However, here is the music video, a video of the band performing the "Hands Down" live on David Letterman, and a pretty cool acoustic version of the song.