Munich might seem like a funny comparison to begin this review with. In terms of pop culture, it sounds like a complete non-sequitur: one is a devastating, visceral thriller of a film, the other a blissful slice of politically charged reggae-rock music. Both, though, are alike in that they can be enjoyed purely as entertainment, and very well crafted entertainment at that. But the power of either isn’t realized until one contemplates the thematic questions they raise, which basically boil down to this: when will we stop blasting the shit out of each other?
Of course, this is a music review, not a forum for liberal heart-bleeding—but in State Radio’s case, it’s impossible to separate the two. Fronted by Chad Stokes (formerly of indie-punk band Dispatch), his track record sounds more like a political consultant’s than a rock star: a Matt Stone-financed documentary, a helping hand in the Democratic 2004 campaign, a DVD of political interviews, and thus, it’s no surprise that the music comes with a hefty dose of leftist charge. In fact, what’s surprising is it’s not more overtly political than it is. To their credit, State Radio manages to keep quality music in the forefront of it all.
Experienced music listeners won’t find too much new here. It’s pretty much what one would expect: mostly energetic, garage rock songs, reminiscent of the Clash (when they weren’t experimenting around with rockabilly), with some Bob Marley beats and reggae rhythms thrown in for good measure. Chad Stokes even goes so far as to put on a faux-Marley accent, though the results are mixed: he ends up sounding more like a strange version of the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler.
What’s impressive, though, is the uniform quality of the songs. Of the 13 assembled, only the last (hidden) track, Sybil IӔ, comes off as boring with its out-of-place lo-fi grunge tone. One could make a case for “Calvado’s Chopper” being self-indulgent, clocking in at seven minutes, but the quibbles are washed away when an overwhelming guitar tide kicks in. Otherwise, the songs are all catchy, tight, and instantly memorable, displaying an enticingly wide sonic palette, from vintage Clash (“Black Cab Motorcade”) to Marley-fied “Wonderwall"s (“Riddle in Londontown”). “Man in the Hall”, especially, displays the kind of addictive funkiness that made Maroon 5 superstars, and could do it for State Radio, too.
What elevates the music beyond purely catchy listening are the lyrical themes. Admittedly, many of the songs are straight-ahead pop, but State Radio does have some very pertinent things to say. For much of the album, they align themselves Springsteen-style with the hardscrabble blue-collar class (but without Bruce’s wild romanticism). This approach, though sincere, doesn’t really connect; firstly, because Stokes just gives off the impression that he’s a well-to-do kid having fun in the studio, without the grit he tries to infuse in his characters. More importantly, though, is their belief on “focusing on the positive”; it’s a noble sentiment, but it just ends up in generalities that don’t mean much.
It’s a pity, because when Chad Stokes punches, he can punch hard. Ripping up the neocons’ alpha male psyche (with some rasta lingo to boot), it condemns that “the men they can’t see beyond/so they war and war”. They pull no punches on “Camilo”, a song supporting Sergeant Camilo Meija’s refusal to report to Iraq and easily the most lyrically devastating song on the album: “You tried to recreate Normandy, but you made up the reason to fight,” they accuse the White House, before cold-bloodedly asking: “And now red oil is spillin’ down on the street is blood money just money to you?” Gunship Politico tells a savage, and all-too-plausible story of lazy cops pinning crimes on a friend “who’s the wrong color at the wrong time”.
Perhaps Stokes will gain firmer control of his songwriting muscle (and learn to sound menacing), and State Radio will resurrect The Clash for Bush’s era. Or perhaps they’ll just end up sticking to great, straight-up pop. As it stands, Us Against the Crown combines both for a terrific debut album, and State Radio looks like they’re only getting started.
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