Aural Impressions: Dispatch, America, Location 12

Dispatch is a band I’ve followed for a long time, all the way back to the summer after I graduated from elementary school.  In those years, I associate their music with some of the best times of my life, mainly during the carefree summers of yore.  From the folk-influenced styling of Silent Steeples, to the broader roots- and rock-tinged Bang Bang, the stripped-down jamming of Four-Day Trials, and the diversely electric hodgepodge of Who Are We Living For?, their many sounds are in some way synonymous with a youthful happiness.

They entered my life at a time when the world was full of limitless possibility; when my hometown transitioned from the entire universe to merely its gateway.  I associate Silent Steeples with not-too-far removed memories of Hawaii; Bang Bang with New England summer; Who Are We Living For? with late-summer storms before leaving for college; Brad’s solo album Watchfires with that same time’s sunsets; Pete’s album Untold with freshman year of college.  Part of what makes Dispatch so timeless to me is their long hiatus.  They disappeared from the studio for over ten years, appearing only in a smattering of live shows during the span between albums.  In that time, improbably, their popularity only seemed to soar.

They put out an album in 2012, Circles Around the Sun.  By then, I was just recovered from the worst of times, albeit still living everyday in a psychological hellscape for still months to come.  That album never grew on me.  It felt more like a collection of solo material from each of the three members (some of it was, in fact), and not even their best.  Dispatch fell off my radar again.  Five years later, they’ve returned.  America, Location 12 is their latest offering, is an absolute treat, bringing back the harmonies and melodies I loved so much.  They make extremely good use of acoustic guitars, but also add some new production elements — not too much to distract, just enough to enhance and freshen.  But enough talking about it; let’s dive in, shall we?

  1. Be Gone:  Interesting that an album titled “America…” would being with a Celtic-sounding flurry of guitars, both electric and acoustic, that gives way to a chant-like vocal accompanied by a plodding drum.  The main vocal line is sung by Chad with harmonies from the others buried a bit deeper in the back.  At times it feels almost State Radio-like.  There are keyboards and several tempo changes, abruptly shifting dynamics and a wide range of guitar effects, from clean, to distorted, to a very subtle tremolo in the bridge.  A riff in the early middle of the song changes into 5/4 for four bars out of nowhere.  There are a few false endings, with the last one leading to an extended instrumental outro of guitar effects, blasts of distortion, bass, sustained vocals from Brad, and a closing sound of fading reverb.  Such an outro is definitely a curious way to start.
  2. Only The Wild Ones:  A jangly, syncopated clean guitar forms the basis for the next song. It goes at an apparently arrhythmic 4/4 until the picking straightens up in the chorus.  It’s slow and warm until the percussion comes in, adding a deal of clarity to the rhythm, as well as some additional movement.  It continues to build and build, bringing in muted guitar, a broader range of percussion, and multi-layered vocals — again Chad is here on lead.  The background harmonies are done well, as usual, though it sounds like at times like it’s a multi-tracked Chad instead of the trio.  I like this song.  It gets bigger as it goes, but not too big; overall it’s pretty chill.  Reminds me somewhat of a more energetic combination between “Bang Bang” and “Bullet Holes.”
  3. Curse + Crush:  This one begins with aggressive minor key acoustic guitars and reverberating vocals with a steady, chugging drum beat.  It’s somewhat militant, pushing forward with the strumming driving the rhythm.  The chorus features low vocals, a perfect blend of all three voices.  Like the previous track, this one builds and expands its sonic palette with electrics and broader vocals, bursting into a nice major key chord progression.  All three shine through in the elevated chorus all the way to an abrupt conclusion.
  4. Painted Yellow Lines:  Woah does this song move.  The drums are straightforward and quick, the bass dances, and the guitars lightly nudge it along.  There are handclaps and tambourines, used sparingly, but effectively.  And then it stops as soon as it gets going into a contemplative, vocal-laden chorus.  This cycle goes on and off a few times during the first few minutes.  We flip between indie and classic rock, evoking an effective mixture of the sounds of the 70s and 00s.  As clean electric guitars enter, we’re really pushing along here.  It sounds very unlike Dispatch, yet it works.  At certain times, the the rhythm and melody recall The Beatles’ “Two of Us,” but overall it sounds much more lush and smooth.  Our fourth Chad song in a row, I’m hoping the others take the lead within the remaining seven songs.  “Painted Yellow Lines” is definitely one of the standouts of this album.  It really doesn’t hurt that the lyrics talk about going to the beach; naturally, it fits right in with my existing impression of the band.
  5. Skin the Rabbit:  Crunchy!  I haven’t heard a riff like this on a Dispatch record ever.  Reminds me somewhat of Collective Soul or Soundgarden at first listen.  Vocal duties here are split between Chad and Brad.  At this point I’m starting to think I don’t really know what Pete sounds like anymore.  But this song is quite good.  The vocals are relentless in their push forward during the chorus.  The bass bounces and slides.  The chord progression is suitably dark, given the subject matter.  The bridge is wide and spacey, and by the end I’m getting strong Who Are We Living For? vibes.  Solid song, perhaps my immediate favorite.
  6. Midnight Lorry:  Another folksy riff with multiple acoustic guitars and/or a banjo.  This is the kind of bluegrass influence I didn’t know I’d been missing.  The synergy of the dueling riffs is wonderful.  Chad’s vocals are half-sung, half-rapped during the verses.  There’s a lovely upbeat sung chorus with a slight reggae-rock feel, throwing us back to Bang Bang.  In the middle we’ve suddenly popped into an almost electronic ambient environment — for a hot second it sounded almost like Air or something like that.  The second half is even weirder.  Beyond a repeat of the chorus, there are electronic effects, a dulcimer, an ever-changing key, and rising vocals, leading to a sparkling texture inside a blending choral melody.  It reminds me a lot of The Beatles or Elliott Smith, especially each of their latter works.
  7. Begin Again: Fast picked guitar and a low-sung vocal immediately brings to mind Joshua Radin and his signature style.  In the second verse we get a lead vocal in the verse from Brad, though it’s later shared with Chad.  Pete’s vocals appear in the background, understated and deep; a role he seems to have settled into on this record.  This is a short, hopeful, upbeat song featuring a mandolin, whistling, and a crescendo of brass, which I don’t think we’ve heard since Bang Bang.
  8. Rice Water:  Sublime picked guitars and a solo ride cymbal progress in a twisting, dissonant way, again making me think of mid-career Elliott Smith.  Musically, this album is far less straight-forward than previous efforts by the band.  This song is understated, with occasional falsetto vocals, and injections of energy at the first choruses.  Near the half-way point it leaps into a full-on sprint.  After that, it’s a different song, with full instrumentation, catchy, upfront vocals and a stutter-stepping pre-chorus.  The latter half’s energy is contagious when coupled with the minor chords, while the suddenly slow and drawn out conclusion feels almost psychedelic.
  9. WindyLike:  Bagpipes and a meandering bassline under bright acoustic guitars feels so much like a solo Braddigan song.  And like a solo Braddigan song, this mostly likely my favorite of the album.  It’s catchy, upbeat, and simple, with flourishes to bring up the mood including a stop-and-go rhythm, a soaring chorus with only a slight effectively deployed touch of melancholy, and an exceptionally warm atmosphere.  This is the kind of song that’s been missing almost since all the way back in the day of Silent Steeples, and it might make the perfect sound for a sunny day.  It’s a shame it ends with a fadeout, because the diminishing sound is almost as intriguing a bridge as the rest of the song.  I’d love to hear this song live among a stadium of singing fans.
  10. Ghost Town:  Can I just remark at how good the acoustic guitar playing is on this album?  It doesn’t take the spotlight, it just adds so much to the foundation to these songs.  This song doesn’t differentiate itself a ton from the album’s overall feel, however the later choruses have several overlapping and poly-rhythmic vocal lines from Chad, Pete and Brad.  I love when they pull this off so much, I wish there’d been more of it on this album, though that alone will keep me coming back to this song.
  11. Atticus Cobain:   Sharp electrics and heavy drums make this one a slight throwback to Who Are We Living For?, though again it’s just a bit different.  The crisp strums evoke Gold Motel to me, but in the Dispatch-realm, the verse is definitely influenced by years of Chadwick Stokes material.  Soon, it erupts into a lively sing-a-long chorus more indicative of an album closer, one that takes great pleasure in doing nothing other than celebrating life.  Those later-chorus chords are especially scintillating.   It makes me think of a song like “Railway” that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s riff heavy, uptempo, and over before you know it.

I really like this album.  Upon first listen I was a little disappointed in the lack of standout vocals from either Pete or Brad, the latter of whom has consistently fronted my favorite Dispatch songs, but upon close repeated listening, they’re all definitely there, with their harmonies and backups as tight as they’ve always been.  Unlike Circles Around The Sun, this album is more thematically and sonically cohesive, sounding like a proper Dispatch record as opposed to an album of solo B-sides as mentioned fore.  It’s mostly chill; no one song gets too large, yet they’re all superb quality.  The fact that it, most of the time, fits immediately into their early sound is comforting.  The completely unexpected moments, like the clean energy of “Painted Yellow Lines,” or the entire second half of “Midnight Lorry” serve to keep it fresh and interesting.  Discounting Circles, it feels like it’s been years since I’ve really heard what the band can do when they’re firing on all cylinders.  What more can I say, Dispatch is back.

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