By Al Kaufman
Chadwick Stokes is a busy guy; so busy he uses more than one name. Under the name Chadwick Urmston, he fronts the indie rock band Dispatch, and the alternative, politically-charged State Radio, a band not afraid to throw some reggae and funk into the mix. As Chadwick Stokes, he is more of a folkie, Americana type guy.
Simmerkane II was conceived as Stokes rode trains throughout the backwoods of the country. It has that peaceful, wide open feel to it. It opens with “Adelaide,” nice jangle pop in the Matthew Sweet vein that Stokes first introduced with State Radio. But from there, the ride is like one long straight stretch of highway with the occasional interesting roadside attraction. Simmerkane II is full of nice moments, but, taken as a whole, never really picks up steam. “Back to the Races” tries to conjure up the energy of Stokes other bands, but doesn’t quite make it. It is the problem with much of the CD; it is pretty, but just not that interesting.
But there is still a lot on here to like. There’s more jangle pop on “I Love Your Army.” “Spider and Gioma” is a disarming story about a worker bee who falls in love with the queen and their ultimate class struggle. Stokes is also smart enough to surround himself with great pop musicians, most notably John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard of the indie pop unit, The Submarines. Hazard harmonizes beautifully with Stokes and almost single-handedly saves the otherwise forgettable “Rainsong” (in which Carly Simon also adds vocals) and “Ichabod and Abraham.”
“Insulin” has a gentle Vampire Weekend feel to it, as do the three songs (“Coffee and Wine,” “All My Possessions (Ode to Troy),” and “Don’t Have You”) on the bonus CD. Why this trio wasn’t included on the original CD (there’s room) is a mystery. All have nice African feels running throughout their pop melodies and would have livened up the CD considerably. Perhaps Stokes they sounded too much like State Radio and wanted his solo CD to stand on its own. Pity if that’s the case.
“Black Bottle,” a sort of hippie drug song, offers some nice flavor. It has that peaceful, easy, ’70s Eagles sound to it, but with horns. They work in that they give the song a fresh feel and a jolt of energy.
Stokes is a gifted songwriter with attention to detail who is able to create vivid images with just a line or two. He can create grandiose scenes (“Nights as black as the coal we’re hauling”) or small ones (“He put on his shirt carefully/Making sure that the buttons matched up/His sleeves were always too short/But at least it meant he could always see his watch.”). He can write a pretty melody. There is really not a bad song on here, but, unfortunately, there aren’t any really great ones either.