The third solo album from Chadwick Stokes, ably supported by The Pintos, is another blend of musical genres and styles that shimmers with uplifting arrangements. Stokes, who spent many years fronting the popular bands Dispatch and State Radio, is now known for writing modern-folk, with splashes of colourful pop and reggae, bluegrass guitars and driving rhythms. Having now taken on the role of producer, he delivers a slick selection of songs, full of energy, warmth and engaging hook-laden melodies. Recorded in his hometown of Boston, Stokes and his players are at ease and perform with confidence and joy on this self-titled release.
The opening three tracks are the strongest on the album and showcase everything that Stokes does best. ‘Joan of Arc’ is, as the title suggests, a historical narrative with obvious parallels to the current and ongoing fight for women’s equality and respect. Lyrically, it makes a powerful statement by tackling the story head on: “The illiterate peasant girl of the likes none had seen the sort // They convicted her of wearing men’s clothing // She said, I only did so that I wouldn’t be raped.” The finger-picking verses give way to bright, sing-along choruses as the song builds, hanging on the clean, clear, melodic vocal. The jaunty tune, arrangement and soaring backing vocals are at odds with aspects of the story but this works and turns it into a song of resilience and hope: “Don’t let them try to end your song // There’s always going to be people trying to get you down // Wanting you to be like everybody else.”
Next up is ‘Chaska’, which highlights another significant tale from the past. It’s based on the biggest mass execution in American history: thirty-eight members of the Dakota (also known as the Sioux) danced, chanted and sung in front of the massed crowd before they were executed. But one of the men should not have been killed. President Lincoln had spared Chaska just days before. Perhaps it was a tragic mistake; perhaps it was a deliberate act of social revenge. As Stokes sings: “Some say there was no mistake, some say they wanted that man to be hung // For falling in love with a white woman and caring for her infant son.” At Chaska’s tribunal, Sarah Wakefield had defended him, saying that he had saved her life and her children. Although she denied being Chaska’s lover, Wakefield’s testimony may have led to his death. That Stokes should attempt to tell such a complicated and socially significant story through his songs says a lot about him as an artist. Stokes is known as an activist and his songs are at their best and most tightly focused, both lyrically and musically, when he allows his social conscience to come to the fore. ‘Chaska’ is the album’s most effective song; with its bluegrass guitars, driving rhythm and catchy singing, it grows into a terrific punky-folk romp. Once again, the backing vocals enhance the song and this is a real feature of the album.
Then Stokes slows down for the beautifully-sung, gentler ballad, ‘Blanket on the Moon’, which slowly builds up layers of instrumentation into a lush, feel-good song of bittersweet hope. Although it is lyrically obscure, it’s full of intriguing language. Like the album as a whole, there are compelling changes in pace, intensity and tone.
The remainder of the album offers plenty of variety, including the reggae-tinged ‘What’s it Going to Take’, which begins with the voice of President Obama addressing the horrific issue of shootings in American schools. Once again, the upbeat vibe seems in conflict with the subject matter but it’s in skilled hands and Stokes and his band manage to pull it off because of the openness of the language and the genuine intent: “What’s it going to take // How many bones do we have to bury // How many hearts have got to hurt // Before one becomes too many?” Stokes bemoans government inaction while asking listeners to imagine their own anger if it were their child.
The less political and socially-conscious songs are not quite on the same level, lacking some of that arrestingly burning intent. However, the album as a whole is fairly consistent and bears repeated listening; the more the songs are engaged with, the more they reveal instrumental flourishes, interesting experimental approaches and smart lyrics. The songs cover difficult relationships and detachment: “You can promise me nothing and I will do the same,” and nostalgic narratives about relationships that change and yet remain the same: “Oh, here we are, still close to the start // Still time to shape who we are.” Chadwick Stokes & The Pintos have retained elements of earlier work while continuing to shape who they are as a band with an evolving musical mix of styles.