Dispatch - Location 13 Album Review by Tim Lemon
Image from dispatchmusic.bandcamp.com
“We were trying to cross the world for what we’d found.”
Those words mark the chorus of the first track from Dispatch’s most recent studio album, Location 13. Known and beloved for the fusion of acoustic folk, alternative rock, reggae, funk, and even some punk elements that defined their sound as a college band, that chorus is also symbolic of the journeymen careers on which Chadwick Stokes Urmston, Brad Corrigan, and Pete Francis Heimbold have embarked. It likens their musical journey to an expedition in which the goal is to rediscover something intangible - a feeling, an emotion, an essence - and return enlightened, having turned the focus inward on oneself or on the dynamic that bonds a group of true friends or brothers together. The culmination of this musical expedition, and physical journey if touring is to be considered, is the matured songwriting and organized, somewhat restrained arrangements present throughout Location 13. They have returned from their travels-solo careers or tenures with other bands during a hiatus from 2002 to 2011-with some degree of peace and wisdom which they now use to grace the sound waves to spread this renewed knowledge. Angry, in-your-face anthems like “Even (Headman)” and “Time Served” off of 2000’s Who Are We Living For?, songs that present politically-charged messages with a direct sense of purpose and urgency, are absent from this record. Instead, they have been replaced by songs like “Letter to Lady J” and “Don Juan Tango”, tracks that feature more light-hearted instrumentation that not-so-subtly mask political overtones. The medium has changed, but the message stays the same. Even compared to its sister record, America, Location 12, the dynamic here has been fine-tuned to offer a more complete full band effort. Whereas Stokes is credited as chief lyricist on the preceding album and performs nearly all lead vocals, this collection of songs was written more collaboratively and uses extensive harmonies to give a voice to all of the musicians that currently make up the band’s touring outfit. Ideas and arrangements that started to be fleshed out during the recording sessions that brought America, Location 12 out of the ether and into reality gave rise to some of the tracks featured on Location 13. Others that didn’t make the initial cut were carried over from Stokes’ 2015 winter writing sessions in a New England cabin. Regardless of how they came to fruition, the songs that make up Location 13 are here and have been for nearly a year, telling both personal and fabricated stories and delivering messages that grow evermore relevant with each passing day.
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As previously mentioned, the record begins with the reggae-tinged track “Cross the World”. Featuring horns and a repetitive chorus, it recounts the story of the band from its origin to their farewell show at Boston’s Hatch Shell in 2004 and through to the Dispatch: Zimbabwe reunion shows in 2007 that kept the fire burning and ultimately led to this new music, tours, and a more permanent unification. Known for nostalgia with acoustic set staples “Flying Horses” and “Elias” off of 1996’s debut Silent Steeples, those feelings are laid on thick here by taking listeners on a trip through the years. In addition to the nostalgia brought on by reminiscing the band’s history, there is a double dose accompanied by the realization that this look-back embodies the end of an era. There is a definite Pete Francis vibe coursing through the veins of this track with its very-present bassline and reggae ties and it is an apt commemoration to Pete as he takes a leave of absence from the band to manage his depression. The music has evolved since the days discussed in the song, but regardless of whether or not Pete returns to the band, his energy will always be ingrained in its spirit and his story a part of the music, helping to bring forth its new sound curated by the band’s current incarnation.
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This new iteration wastes no time exploring new territory, bursting forth with the album’s second track, the psyche-Celtic “Daft Alchemist”. The emphasis on dual banjo and acoustic hammer-ons couples nicely with rhythmic claps and bass slides, emanating a distinctly Irish vibe while the lyrics tell of a protagonist being given a terminal diagnosis, “Gave me the nine months, but I wish it was a year...Everything I thought I knew was blown to smithereens, and I don’t know what to do now that everything has changed.” Switching vibes completely in the bridge as the protagonist teeters on mania in trying to process his situation, the instrumentation mirrors his dazed headspace with psychedelic keys, ambient sounds, and doubled vocals. The song resolves to a celebration of sorts with a more well-rounded and steady percussive profile accompanied by guitar, banjo, and a bouncing bassline as the protagonist comes to terms with his fate, vividly realizing the finite nature of life and finding solace in the infinite nature of energy with the lines, “I’m not going, I’m just staying the same.” Refuting a stagnant, linear timeline and asserting the need to grow and change, “London Daughters” features Brad Corrigan on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, bringing a decidedly more folky approach. With gentle fingerpicking to match his soft, low vocal melody, Braddigan crafts a call for peace with historical examinations referencing the Irish rebellion and applies it to present-day traces of lineage to urge people to learn from the past. The vocals and guitar are accompanied by a soothing ambient slide guitar, John “JR” Reilly’s high harmonies, and gentle shaker-based percussion that build to a slide solo. They then ease back into a calm rhythm, matching the sentiment of conflict and peace, struggle and serenity “going down then up” through peaks and valleys across time while the song’s overarching theme ponders on what it will take to break that cycle.
The fragility of “London Daughters” yields to the heavily Stokes-influenced “So Good”. A testament to the new ground being charted in Location 13, the song oscillates between verbose personal anecdotes in acoustic verses and a wailing electric chorus. It seems to be the lovechild of “Painted Yellow Lines” off of America, Location 12 in terms of lyricism and the much heavier “Sugarbeet Wine” off of Rabbit Inn Rebellion by State Radio, Stokes’ second band that formed during Dispatch’s hiatus. The song grapples with the passage of time, getting hung up on change and questioning whether or not now is a good time to be alive, especially given current events and the political climate. However, Stokes’ belief that “it’s so good to be living right now” is optimistically affirmed by an anecdote about his kids, being given hope by the younger generation. This optimism is reflected by the stomping Southern rock sing along that matches the guitar rhythm to conclude the song. “Black Land Prairie” steps that optimism back quite a few steps, questioning fate and mortality as they pertain to a conflicted soldier going to war with the Native Americans in the unfamiliar midwest. Featuring Stokes’ brother, Willy Urmston, on banjo and with ghostly vocal harmonies leading the melody, the soldier’s situation becomes evermore dire as it is made clear that he’s alone, abandoned or possibly the last survivor of a group. Finding some sort of shelter after being discovered and let go by a merciful father and son, he resolves to “ride again”-a resolution that seems delusional as the delay on the electric guitar in the chorus brings to life the extreme conditions characteristic of the landscape. It audibly depicts visions of heat sizzling and rising from the ground under a blistering sun. The soldier’s optimism quickly devolves into madness as he questions whether he will meet his end at the hands of these harsh elements, his perceived enemy, or his own rifle before a distorted and doubled guitar solo bleed into the outro where layers of vocal harmonies sing, “still run, the caravan.” With the instrumentation alluding to a mirage, those final words could signify hope in the form of an observation on the horizon or the incoherent rambling of a man trying to process visions his imagination has concocted. The song answers none of these questions, but presumably like the soldier, the album marches on.
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The psychedelic Celtic vibes from “Daft Alchemist” return on “Came For the Fire” as similar acoustic hammer-ons make an appearance in the intro. However, they quickly give way to heavier drums and an electric guitar solidly strumming quick chord changes that reappear in instrumental breaks throughout the song, contributing to a decidedly more rocking feel. Laiden with effects, the instrumentation resembles scattered thoughts in a mental state of chaos before calming into the acoustic verses and chorus that tenderly and honestly explore the dynamic of a relationship teetering on the edge of collapse. The cause of the relationship’s turbulent state is revealed to be the man’s compulsive fixation on a lingering project that would seem to be his life’s work. Although the woman in the relationship is actively in support of his ambition, she fears that her devotion to him is misdirected as his lies solely in his unending task. Stokes’ falsetto vocals in the chorus play the part of the woman with the most poignant line questioning, “Is this the war of our reliance? Have I lost my part in your dream?” Although the song characteristically refrains from answering that question, the fact that it is asked at all seems to allude to its true answer. It can be assumed that the man’s relationship ends and his work goes unfinished due to a mixture of heart-break, lack of support, and mad genius that lost its focus.
The next two songs on Location 13, the first of which has seen significant independent radio airplay, go hand-in-hand with one flowing seamlessly into the other. As if it went missing and into hiding, “Letter to Lady J” is an uptempo plea for justice to make a triumphant return amidst the current social and political madness that dominates headlines. Signifying that all movements start small, even if only with one person, the song begins with Stokes’ vocals and unique finger-picked stylings. However, he is soon accompanied by Braddigan’s harmonic vocals that blossom into full-band harmonies in the chorus - a movement gaining momentum. By the time the sing-along “ah-ah-ah’s” are ushered in with a contagious bobbing bass-line and slide guitar melody, it would seem the movement-for civil rights, equal rights, insert justified cause here-is in full swing, being led by a true unified force to be reckoned with. Whereas previous Dispatch songs with political messages were often presented using a more radical tone, directing anger at positions of power, this one fosters optimism in acknowledging that like-minded people can come together and bring about meaningful change. Appropriately following the rallying cry in “Lady J” is a figurehead sure to ignite the motivations for the previously called upon social mobilization in “Don Juan Tango” (the initials of President Donald J. Trump). Although the descending chord progression in the intro and acoustic airiness of the verses seem cartoonish and benign, the lyrics are anything but. Being the most overtly political lyrics between both Location 12 and 13, the first verse paints President Trump as a caricature holding his infant-like hands over the big red button that would spur a nuclear holocaust while the members of his cabinet cower in an underground bunker in anticipation of his next erratic decision. The bridge perfectly captures the insanity of the feud between the “Rocket Man and the Maniac” with bumbling horns and piano notes that imitate a childish xylophone, but the lyrics allude to the real danger of this instability in referencing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Along with the themes of seemingly imminent nuclear war, the song serves as Dispatch’s own, less edgy “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. The music’s whimsical tone mirrors the absurdity of the current presidency while also discussing serious topics like systemic racism, victim blaming in sexual assault cases, global warming, and the national anthem controversy. Following the intensely catchy and uptempo final chorus, the last line of the song brings all of these subjects together in a chilling warning to politicians and citizens living in a bubble or echo chamber: “Stay tuned in your cocoon ‘cause this system will not last.”
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The album again changes pace with the somber folk-turned-rock song “Follow I The River.” If there is one critique that I have of Location 13, it is that it seems to lack a steady sense of flow. However, it certainly keeps the listener guessing track-to-track and avoids being stagnant both lyrically and in the respective sonic spaces created in each song. “Follow I The River” harkens back to “Rice Water” off of Location 12 in telling of a migrant journey, but adds an element of danger by being set during the winter. In stark contrast to the two preceding tracks, a dark audible atmosphere is created by omnipresent reverb-soaked harmonic vocals floating atop a weightless acoustic guitar, giving a glimpse into the clouded conscience of the narrator during the ethereal verses. The verses then break into steady rock with pounding drums and the signature fuzz-infused electric guitar tone that seems to characterize the band’s current sound. This sense of urgency peels back the patience and wisdom of the elders on this pilgrimage to show the steadfast nature of their discipline and mission to follow the river to some perceived promised land. Faced with the bone-chilling cold of winter and confronting their own mortality, the narrator concedes, “Sweet delight of mine, won’t be long til we are gone,” but finds peace in striving for a better life in guiding the next generation with the line, “May they love before they fear and hope is not undone.” Remaining determined even with the odds stacked against them, the lyrics in the chorus emulate a mantra, possibly meant to deceive the mind and body as the elder narrator’s health deteriorates for a righteous purpose: “It’s not far away.”
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Location 13 pivots one final time with its upbeat Americana closer, “Prisoner’s Visitor.” Crafting an old-timey Mexicali/Western vibe with piano and horns, the listener is immediately transported to a cowboy-esque mud-brick prison cell in the desert. Rather than pessimism, soft folk rock ushers in an heir of wistfulness as Billy, the starry-eyed prisoner protagonist, daydreams of an escape. He wishes to again see his long-lost love Daisy, possibly to have her “sing so loud” as a diversion, but also prays for her to “turn back around” as his self-loathing comes to light in assuming she will want nothing to do with the criminal ways that landed him in this predicament. However, fully engulfed in this reverie, he recalls their final goodbye exchanging groceries and kisses and is struck with the revelation that he never “tasted anything that [he] could say was just as fine.” The song then ends with a slight alteration to the end of the feel-good chorus in which Billy prays for his visitor, Daisy, to stay as he accepts his lot and longs to see her again, whether from across prison glass or in running away together.
Although I acknowledge that the selection of songs that make up Location 13 do not bleed effortlessly into a cohesive package from start to finish, themes of enlightenment, contextual historical and social observation, justice and equality and journeys into and outside of the self bind these tracks together even if from a multitude of perspectives. In addition to this collection, the three singles that accompanied the release of Location 13 share in this subject matter and could have easily been a part of this album. However, I can also understand the similarities that warranted their exclusion from the final cut. The haunting finger-picked acoustic ballad “One Word of a Lie” offers a much more ominous vantage point to the fate befalling the protagonist of “Daft Alchemist.” “Born and Razed” strikes a sympathetic chord with the plight of migrants along the same lines as “Follow I The River”, but uses an arrangement more akin to “Prisoner’s Visitor” to describe how they’ve been betrayed by humanity through oppression and seek empathy with the harshly indiscriminate forces of mother nature rather than fall victim to them. The heart-breaking plea for gun control that pulses throughout “Dear Congress”, although restrained in its fragile presentation, evokes anger from sadness and calls for action. Beautifully divisive, I can see why it should stand alone to serve as a pointed cause that the advocates rallied in “Letter to Lady J” could wholeheartedly support.
Whereas both of Dispatch’s recent studio releases bear the marks of the passage of time, showing maturity in thematic content and its reserved delivery compared to early albums, I hope to see the youthful energy and grit that is emblematic of their live performances (as well as a few of these tracks) when they play Thompson’s Point in Portland, Maine this Saturday.
Image from eventbrite.com
Please enjoy “Letter to Lady J” below: