Hidden Gems is a feature where our writers unearth an album that may have escaped your attention, bringing it to light for you to enjoy. Better late than never, we always say. This week, Ian dug up State Radio’s Us Against The Crown.
I grew up in the small New England town of Cohasset and it’s safe to say that the culture there was fairly homogenous. Whether it was the Boston sports fandom, matching clothes (Nike mids and pastel shorts for guys; leggings, Uggs and a sweatshirt for girls), and the creation of our own lingo (I doubt “the miz”, “sweatbag” and “riller” have ever left South Shore, MA), we all tended to have similar tastes and ideas.
A community like that can be tough to grow up in, but at the same time it can be really great. We were tight-knit; running into each other outside of the town felt like a reunion of long-lost frinds. For the most part, we got along with each other, and some of the things we shared together were special. Going to Boston victory parades (I've been alive for 9, but who's counting?), hanging out at The Deli on half days, even stealing chromies from cars for our bike tires.
Listening to State Radio was another one of those small joys. Believe it or not, I was late to the game on a lot of music in high school. The State Radio phenomenon was well underway when I heard them for the first time at a show of theirs in neighboring Duxbury. After seeing them (especially after seeing Chadwick Stokes shredding a guitar made from an old gas can) I instantly became a huge fan.
Chadwick Stokes is most famous for being the frontman of Dispatch, the jam band known for being one of the most influential independent bands. They hold the honor of having the largest concert ever by an independent band, a show at the Hatch Shell in Boston which would be their last. After their breakup, Stokes formed State Radio.
The fact that State Radio is an all-white outfit with heavy jam band, reggae, and ska influences probably scares of lots of new listeners, but I urge you to give them a chance. What sets State Radio apart from the 311’s or OAR’s or Reel Big Fish’s of the world is that their music was more than just sonically pleasing. Stoke’s storytelling along with the band’s strong populist political leanings makes their work substantial. This is best exemplified by their 2005 debut album, Us Against The Crown.
“People to People" sets the tone for the album from the opening riff. The guitar chops and chucks in typical reggae fashion, but Stokes’ use of an electric guitar on overdrive give the riff a unique sound. The song is an anti-war ditty that tells the story of villages being pillaged. It also explains the dehumanization of soldiers, declaring “the men can’t see beyond/So they war and war/They don’t remember/What they came here for.”
The song, filled with anger and resentment, is one of many anti-war songs on the record, which are Chadwick's response to the Bush Administration's occupation of the Middle East. In '05, US occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan created strong anti-war sentiment, even amongst some of the soldiers. One disilllusioned soldier was the inspiration for the band’s most famous song:
Twenty days in a concrete fallout What life have I to take your own Oh my country won't you call out Doorbells are ringing with boxes of bones And from another land's war torn corners To a prison cell in my own Punish me for not taking your orders But don't lock me up for not leaving my home
What makes State Radio genuine in their anti-war protests is that they back their activism up with either true or relatable stories. Anyone can write about a song about people hating the war, but theirs is backed by evidence from those affected by combat. Whether satirical as in “Black Cab Motorcade” and “Man In The Hall” or somber like “Camilo”, these stories are based off truth. I’m not saying that other protest songs aren’t, but they do a great job of personifying the injustices at hand. Being a 16 year-old disillusioned to politics, these songs were important to me. As a 23 year-old, they still are.
UATC also succeeds in telling stories in much smaller settings. “Mr. Larkin” is told from the perspective of an older man working at a retirement, pleading to the title character to save his job. The catch is that he only works there to support his wife, who is an Alzheimer’s patient at that facility. The old man states that “Every now and then she’ll squeeze my hand/It’s what I live for, it’s why she don’t die/ So Mr. Larkin won’t you give me this try.” Stokes brilliantly builds the story throughout the song, and his shrieks throughout the song do well to express the desperation the old man is experiencing.
A lot of the album’s stories are sad, but it doesn’t mean they have to end poorly. “Waitress” is about a diner waitress who snaps and sticks up the restaurant. The chanting chorus is contagious, the following guitar riff is undeniably catchy, and the final riff with added overdrive is electric. It’s filled with attitude, which helps set State Radio apart from other jam bands.
While State Radio do dark and political very well, they can do much more. “Diner Song” is a hilarious song about fucking a waitress at a restaurant in the bathroom (hopefully not the same one from “Waitress”, because that would be way too dark). They can be loving, as proven by “Sybil”, named after Chad’s girlfriend. And finally they can be empowering, proved by my favorite song on the album:
“Right Me Up” is about Manny Furtado, a mentally disabled man that Chad met while working at Camp Jabberwocky (a camp for the physically and mentally disabled in Massachusetts). It talks about Manny’s positive attitude despite the challenges he faced in life. In the video above, Chad wheeled him onto the stage in Boston to a massive applause. As dark as State Radio can be, they found proof that a lot of good can come out of this world as well.
There’s a lot of things to like about State Radio and Us Against The Crown. It's politcal. It’s brooding and uplifting at the same time. It displays a mastery of songwriting by Chad Stokes. It has excellent instrumentation. It melds jam band, reggae, punk and rock with ease. Isn’t it ironic that a small town where many people think so similarly could fall in love with a band that is so different?
Other than the music, the reason why I think Us Against The Crown is a hidden gem is because it is tied to my hometown. I was ecstatic when I found out that some my NC friends were fans of their music because it was like sharing a part of my story with them. Not every piece of music can evoke strong memories but the good ones always will, especially this hidden gem.