Between seven records with the college rock, folksy jam band Dispatch, four with righteous rock trio State Radio, and a smattering of solo releases under various names, Chadwick Stokes Urmston has a long history of singing about important issues. On Chadwick Stokes & The Pintos, his third solo LP and first producing effort, Stokes offers the most cohesive blend of his previous projects: It’s lyrically more akin to State Radio’s social and political savvy, with more of the cool folk rock that helped make Dispatch songs like “Bats in the Belfry” and “The General” omnipresent for a long time.
Stokes’ backing band, The Pintos, is not exactly a new group of players either. Both friends and family joined in to assist, including his younger brother Willy Urmston on banjo and backing vocals, longtime studio musician/touring band member Jon Reilly on percussion and vocals, and Tommy Ng on bass and vocals. On the whole, Chadwick Stokes & The Pintos is a quieter affair than much of Stokes’ earlier work. The seven-minute “Blanket on the Moon,” for example, begins with softer acoustic guitars and Stokes almost whispering a sci-fi metaphor of the American immigration crisis before building into a swirl of wailing voices, guitars, and synths that tapers off with swelling strings and an arpeggiated piano finish. Other songs incorporate even more traditional folk elements, like the raucous fiddle outro to “Chaska,” quick-picked triplets on the acoustic ballad “Love and War,” and what sounds like buzzing bug field recordings of “Mooshiquoinox.” Still, longstanding fans will be pleased with the familiar swinging rhymes and rhythms of “Hit the Bell with Your Elbow” and heavy closer “Second Favorite Living Drummer.”
Historically, Stokes’ best work emerges when he listens in on issues around him and uses his privilege and platform to comment on them in interesting and hopeful ways, and the songs on Chadwick Stokes & The Pintos are no exception. Not only one of the strongest musical tracks on the record, “Chaska” also raises awareness for indigenous rights in telling the story of the largest mass execution in American history: On Dec. 26, 1892, Brig. Gen. Henry Hastings Sibley detained more than 400 native Dakotas (historically referred to as Sioux), and the federal government sentenced 38 of them to death by hanging. One of the 38, We-Chank-Wash-ta-don-pee, often referred to as Chaska, was pardoned by President Lincoln the day prior to the execution, but was not saved in time. Later, Stokes excerpts audio from a speech delivered by President Obama to open “What’s It Going To Take,” a heartbreaking song in honor of the children who died in school shootings across America. “How many bones do we have to bury? How many hearts have got to hurt before one more becomes too many?” he sings in the reggae-tinged, upstroke heavy indictment. Songs like these help solidify Stokes’ songwriting career and showcase his commitment to social justice and allyship — a hallmark of so many legacy roots musicians.