Before I get called out for stretching things beyond my original 24-hour promise, let me say that a) I got tired, b) all three of these posts have ended up being longer than I originally intended, and c) I decided it was important to go vote (PS GO VOTE! GET INFORMED AND CAST YOUR VOTE!) before I wrote up a review to an album by State Radio. Excuses aside, here is the last of three new installments of this blog in three days: a write-up on the brand new release by Boston political rockers State Radio.
I should point out that State Radio is and has been my favorite band for several years now. In the early 2000s, Chad Urmston began writing heavily political and well-educated rock and reggae songs as his jammy grassroots-celebrity band Dispatch was headed for a breakup. For the past decade hence Urmston has fronted a Boston-based trio that defines itself on activism in practice and in their words. Earlier this week, State Radio released their fourth full-length album, Rabbit Inn Rebellion, a heavy disc that rumbles in a slightly new direction for the group.
Listeners of State Radio will recognize a heavy slate of hot-button issues in the lyrics on the album, but gone are even a hint of the reggae upstrokes that have been present in the band’s music even as their arrangements have moved in darker and more metallic directions. The great irony is that while the skanking is gone from these songs, the intense riffs and unexpected turnarounds that are found on Rabbit Inn Rebellion actually call the listener back to State Radio’s first studio offering, a 2002 EP titled Flag of the Shiners. I miss the Marley-esque blend of reggae and social consciousness that the band has admittedly been moving ever so cautiously away from since their debut full-length, 2006’s Us Against the Crown, but the bombastic riffs and crashing wall of cymbal and bass guitar that sits at the forefront of the new album is just as familiar and welcome.
One of State Radio’s greatest strengths is Urmston’s incredible gift for storytelling; from his Dispatch heyday in the 1990s to the present, the songwriter has waxed lyrical about the fantastical and the painfully real, often finding a mystical realism in his words. The people Urmston has met and the sights he’s seen clearly give him an arsenal of stories to tell, and each of them seems breathtakingly important. A singer and lyricist with this clear of a command of oral history and English vocabulary can make some magical things happen on a record, and Urmston regularly achieves this. Combining Urmston’s vocals with his clever guitar riffs, the face-melting lead bass guitar of Chuck Fay (this term has never been so appropriate in band not led by Les Claypool or Victor Wooten), and Mike “Maddog” Najarian’s 1990s hard rock-style drumming creates a rock album that captivates the listener from start to finish.
When it was released I was quick to refer to Let it Go, the most recent State Radio album, as a stream of anthems, their melodies soaring over the wall of sound the band created to great emotional appeal and effect. Rabbit Inn Rebellion is similarly anthemic in the melodic structure and the earnest cries (and they are often cries) of the characters in Urmston’s stories. From hard rockers about a mother in Haiti looking for her children in the aftermath of an earthquake and a populace that has forgotten about two wars they’re fighting (“Roadway Broken” and “Take Cover“, respectively) to the Boston-punk story of a guardian angel girl in “Freckled Mary“, Rabbit Inn Rebellion sees Urmston screaming over blues-clogged guitars and a rhythm section at the top of their game to package crucial issues and stories in fitting songs that often give a face and a narrative voice to their tales.
And there are tales to tell here. The album kicks off with clips from an interview with a former junkie as an overdriven blues groove tells about the dangers of hard drugs in “H.A.C.K.I.N.“. State Radio takes on Wall Street in “Big Man” and the tragedy of lost life in wartime in the Itunes-only bonus track “Ocean“. A new recording of “Adelaide” (a more rootsy version appears on Urmston’s 2011 solo album) recounts the rise and fall of a love between Urmston’s brother and a girl from a Navajo reservation, and the Police-with-a-punk-twist roar of “Desert Queen” provides the listener with a true story of a dog killer in Arizona. The distortion kicks off quickly on the first track and doesn’t really let up all the way through the closer, the Black Sabbath-like “Black Welsh Mountain“. Rabbit Inn Rebellion is clearly meant to be listened to at loud volumes, and playing through it the listener is compelled at turns to scream along with the repeated chants and shift with the swaying riffs that power each track.
I’ve heard the comment that the album barely feels new, as almost half of the tracks had been released in some form or another prior to release, but I feel that they’re mostly all defensible. “Adelaide” is sufficiently different from the Simmerkane II version released last year that I am happy to listen to it. “Roadway Broken” was released early as a part of a benefit for relief in Haiti. “Freckled Mary” and “Take Cover” were essentially singles leaked to garner excitement, and “State of Georgia” is just now making its first appearance as a full-band studio cut. The latter is maybe emotional peak of the album: a creeping voodoo blues flips the switch to death-cry rock to commit to memory the tragic life and death of Troy Davis.
Rabbit Inn Rebellion is as much a call to action as a listening experience, and the band is happy to back their lyrics up with community service and advocacy. Urmston himself actually founded a nonprofit organization that works to unite musicians and fans in service to communities and causes. Today actually eclipses Calling All Crows’ annual 5k in Northampton, Massachusetts, with this year’s proceeds raising awareness for marriage equality. Just as the band has written songs about earthquakes and death-row inmates and human rights violations, their work has gone towards promoting and funding these efforts. In this way, the group is always able to underscore the importance of their work; not only does State Radio support the causes they advocate in their music, they are happy to join hands with their fans and put work in on the ground in these situations.
State Radio’s newest offering is a headbanging freight train that barrels through chapter after chapter of a litany of causes and issues that weigh heavily on the band’s collective mind. With snarling guitars and bass guitar riffs that vibrate the listener’s insides, this is a meaner and dirtier sound than the band has often put to record, but one that relates their message just as effectively. Rabbit Inn Rebellion may prove to take a physical and emotional toll on the listener, but that falls right in line with the sober nature of so many of these stories being told. In some ways this is a different type of album than the typical State Radio listener is used to, but the incredible (and with one or two exceptions, true) stories being told and undeniable quality of songwriting maintain this as a release to grab and a band to continue watching.