If the supporters of digital music distribution have their way, Dispatch will be the new prototype of success.
The trio, who formed at Middlebury College in Vermont, has become one of the hottest bands in the Northeast, and has been nominated for several prestigious 2002 Boston Music Awards. They’ve released their four studio albums by themselves, originally having the lead guitarist’s mother sell them only by mail. They built a name, in part, the old-fashioned way: by playing schools around the region, and in part the new-fashioned way: by using digital music services like Napster to get their music out to high school and college students who would have nothing to do with modern rock radio.
The final move to break them was probably a March 4th, 2001 story on the front page of the Boston Sunday Globe—a very strange move considering arts stories, nevermind stories on unknown rock bands, rarely make the front of the Sunday Globe—that talked about their rise to relative fame. After that Dispatch became a bona fide phenomenon.
Of course, this would be window-dressing if they didn’t have the music to back it up. But it’s easy to see why Dispatch has caught on with the collegiate crowd: they merge rap/metal, funk, worldbeat, reggae, and jam band guitar rock with ease. The tunes on Who Are We Living For?, their fourth studio album, run the gamut of those genres, and reach out so far as to include straight-forward acoustic pop (think Dave Matthews or John Mayer) on “Carry You”, heavier rap-funk-metal like “Just Like Larry”, and plenty of more experimental instrumentals like the jazzy, danceable opener “Everybody Clap”.
The aforementioned comparison to Dave Matthews is important, because while Dispatch sound little like him, their music is likely to appeal to the more adventurous half of Matthews’ fan base: those listeners who need to own his every live show for all of the musical twists and turns, and who are more interested in figuring out time signatures and learning to play than singing along with his recent radio singles. In that respect, Dispatch is a bit of a post-DMB rock band: their success may have not been possible without Matthews’ popularization of pop-jazz-world-rock, but at the same time Dispatch are not as prone to complacency as Matthews either. Don’t bother looking for a Glen Ballard-produced Dispatch album in the near future.
And, unlike more mainstream (and less diverse) rap-funk-metal-reggae acts, Dispatch doesn’t slack off on the lyrics. They have an anti-establishment streak, witnessed by guitarist Chad Urmston’s arrest in fall of 2000 while protesting the Boston presidential debates, and that carries through to the music. Most of the songs address social issues running the gamut from homelessness to violence and spending a good deal of time on the matter of justice. “Open Up”, easily one of the album’s most accessible rockers, pleads “I, I, I ain’t opposed to seeking justice / But You’re going about it all wrong / The man you’re looking for does not exist / He’s just a figment of the higher man’s tongue”. So lyrically (and even atmospherically, at that), Who Are We Living For? is reminiscent of great, classic, politically-charged reggae like Peter Tosh or the more contemplative moments of Bob Marley, the Equals, and Jimmy Cliff. On the rock side, they also evoke a more tuneful and listenable Rage Against the Machine or a less shallow 311.
The biggest asset of Who Are We Living For?, however, is its freewheeling eclecticism. A lot of this comes in the form of the one-to-two minute long instrumentals scattered throughout the album. It’s in these tracks, like the opener “Everybody Clap”, that they explore jazz and worldbeat in greater depth, and it makes for great headstrong party music. And the strongest musical attribute is the outstanding rhythm section: courtesy drummer Brad Corrigan and bassist Pete Heimbold (credited in the liner notes as Braddigan and Repete, respectively). Instead of merely falling into a groove, the rhythm section refuses to sit still all over this record, to the point where it’s the percussion, not guitars, that are in the forefront of Dispatch’s sound. So while the average Dispatch fan isn’t probably a kid with a huge collection of old jazz records, s/he has a chance to sample different genres all over Who Are We Living For? without feeling like Dispatch is giving a lesson in music appreciation.
It’s also easy to see why Dispatch have gained a lot of their reputation from their live shows: Who Are We Living For? is a fairly organic record, free of studio trickery, but it also rocks like hell. So the aforementioned elements—the powerful rhythm section, anthemic lyrics, and genre hopping-probably gel into one hell of a party. That may make Dispatch’s 2001 double-CD live album Gut the Van a better introduction than Who Are We Living For?, but this album will certainly do the trick for anyone growing tired of Dave Matthews.