Us Against the Crown
t’s tough to imagine what The Clash would be doing if they were still around today—if Regan and Thatcher got you pissed off, just what Bush and Blair would do for you? American Idiot made lemonade out of the current political lemons, but doesn’t match the focus or tooth-and-nails, rock-steady vehemence of London Calling. As Ted Leo, perhaps the last truly angry man in rock, asked: Where have all the rude boys gone?
Cue State Radio. Us Against The Crown, is, as the title announces, a Political Record-with-a-capital-P, and in that sense at least, a heritor to London Calling’s neglected legacy, and about bloody time too. Yet for all its rabble-rousing good-intentions, Crown is only a frustrating half of the record it deserves to be.
The biggest disappointment of the album is its opening, “People to People.” Instead of an urgent call to arms, à la “London Calling,” or “American Idiot,” the album begins inexplicably with the most anodyne cut, entirely unredeemed by the smart-aleck insertion of JFK’s comments following Martin Luther King’s assassination: “People to people are so unjust / They say ‘Carry yourself well.’” What happened to Strummer’s apocalyptic vision of riots, ice ages, and the zombies of death? Injustice? You don’t say…
The album improves thereafter, but the opening letdown is tough to exorcise. The lyrics stick resolutely to their political guns: tales of down-on-your-luck employment (“Mr. Larkin”) rub shoulders with stirring tales of conscientious objectors (“Camilo,” which details, nay, celebrates the true story of a soldier imprisoned for refusing to return to Iraq from furlough in the US after concluding that the war was “illegal and immoral.”) Perhaps the band is simply more concerned with the personal challenges than the grand political scheme. But it’s as though the band is afraid to be caught overstating its case, and in doing so reins in its outrage where it counts most. The moral high-ground gets depressing eventually: how much enjoyment can there be in the midst of scrupulous immersion-treatment conscientizing? Can’t we just call the bad guys bad names, just once?
State Radio is led by Chad Urmston, ex-Dispatch, and is perhaps the most focused effort to emerge from the folding of the indie juggernaut. The band sometimes veers perilously close to the white-boy reggae currently revogued by Matisyahu (see “People to People”) but is mostly rescued from frat-boy purgatory by Urmston’s close observations and palpable, omnipresent anger, more “Burning and Looting” than “Get Up, Stand Up.” And though Crown is State Radio’s most market-friendly album, employing horns and even keyboard flourishes, it never descends to a bred-in-a-lab clinical cleanliness. The band does lean a little too heavily on a slow-build formula and falsetto harmonies with Urmston’s reedy voice, dressing anger in the rags of regret and the soft-shoes of sorrow.
The poli-ska orthodoxy of the album also puts the squeeze on some of the toothier punk-rock flourishes that made the Flag of the Shiners EP an unexpected treat, cramming them into interludes like guest rappers on a Jay-Z album. Only on the deliciously dirty “Diner Song” does the liberal PC-ness get well and truly dropped: “Brings me water with her skirt so high / I catch a little glimpse in the silverware shine / I ain’t a thief cause that ain’t right / I ain’t got no money / But I intend to pay for my meal tonight.” In its cheerful three-chord grind it is the Clashiest, if not quite the classiest, track on the album.
The band is often at its best when it drops the reggae schtick. On “Black Cab Motorcade” Urmston sounds like a hungover, washed-out Eddie Vedder: “Teacher won’t teach your lesson / Though the young are hard to break / Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson / And the cost of school these days.” “Riddle in London Town,” a reclaimed Dispatch tune, could have found a home on Sting’s Soul Cages album, a mournful ballad of industrial families broken and cast aside, and I mean that in a good way.
The best track off Flag, “Gunship Politico” is reprised here, slimmed down by a minute but wisely left otherwise untouched. A rangy, wordy commentary on racism that lyrically encompasses the Diallo and Menezes shootings, the Clichy-sous-Bois deaths, and the incarceration of Leonard Peltier, casting the listener in the role of policeman while skirting cliché and preachiness: “But when you continue to let loose on the running man / You send him crashing to the edge of the pavement… off to the commissioner as fast as you can / With your smoking gun in hand.”
London Calling is an unfair comparison for any record, let alone a debut. But Crown is tantalizing: Urmston is political, articulate, and angry, and has defter, more subtle chops than Billie Joe Armstrong’s day-glo rants. But it seems that, for the moment, he can’t make out enough light at the end of the tunnel to lead a charge. And in that, at least, he’s not alone.