Never trust a hippie. They’ll sell you out more quickly than you can possibly imagine. In one of his classic Generation X neologisms, Douglas Coupland writes that a contemporary member of this subculture can be described as a Bleeding Ponytail: “an elderly sold out baby boomer who pines for hippie or pre-sellout days”. The values fostered by the baby boomers have bled into a postmodern era perfused with the empty signs of hypercapitalist mass conformity (or whatever). The flower children of today are probably the fascists of tomorrow.
At its best, Michael Franti’s political activism is right-on, in all the right places. He supports the worthwhile issues of peace and social justice and, through his music, has done good work in tackling important problems: the criminal justice system, the increasing influence that corporate interests play in our everyday lives, AIDS, gay rights, homelessness, capital punishment, drug addiction and suicide. Franti has also made a documentary film, I Know I’m Not Alone, where he goes to the Middle East with his message. Perhaps the film wasn’t as balanced as it could have been, but Franti’s nice-guy approach and humanist ethic are certainly admirable.
At worst, however, as David Harris at TinyMixTapes documented in a gig review in 2008, Franti’s is a politics of smugness. It combines hippie libertarianism and the bits of sentimental Americana that aren’t charming, and some of his fans seem like thoroughbred trustafarians. These people are maudlin cultural cannibals for whom multiculturalism is a socio-ideological badge to be conceitedly displayed.
The hip-hop game has changed since Franti’s work with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and the skank funk of Spearhead’s 1994 debut Home. It very obviously leans more towards techno futurism than dusty funk breaks and jazz solos. Thus, The Sound of Sunshine has to compete with ultramodern trance orchestration even more than it has to compete with skin cancer, natural disasters, or climate change. It is an unexceptional album. It’s forgettable and bland. Franti is beaming, his band are overwhelmingly pleasant, but the aesthetic is hollow.
A mixture of a soundclash, a block party, and a daydream about Woodstock, The Sound of Sunshine successfully combines flecks of urban grit with wide-open pastoral scenery. Sometimes it feels intimate, clarifying Lady Saw’s measured, and unexpectedly mild, breaths on “Shake It”. It encourages you to dance, and it lets off a sly grin as it witnesses you shaking your stuff and exposing your flesh. This intimacy means that the acoustic guitars on the title track (which opens and closes the album), “The Only Thing Missing Was You” and “Gloria” don’t sacrifice their timbre for amplified power. On “Hey Hey Hey” and “Love Don’t Wait” there are big choruses for big crowds to sing along to.
However, perhaps this album is too polite, focussing too much on being nice, and losing all the lusty references that, even when thinly disguised, make for good pop music. It’s too concerned about being accused of objectifying the asses it wants to see shaking to really let loose. Instead, it issues a firm hug, puts a flower in its hair, and offers a sip of organic orange juice that it trekked through the blazing heat of the city to find.
Sometimes it’s hard to escape the thought that Franti is a second-rate star, like late Lenny Kravitz or Terence Trent D’Arby at his most laughable and least fresh. Indeed, they all share a back-to-basics methodology that burrows into some imagined roots, united by the peace, the love, and the freewheeling antics of rock and/or roll mythology. “The Thing That Helps Me Get Through” is certainly the most memorable song on here, if not the best. This is hardly a benefit. It sounds like an unholy combination of Lenny Kravitz and “Let Me Entertain You” by British pub-pop phenomenon Robbie Williams.
Lacking the scattershot designer soul of D’Arby and the American muscle of Kravitz, Franti could be compared to Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, or Joshua Radin. However, his politics save him from sheer mediocrity. Though they’re flawed, and perhaps a little self-congratulatory, at least they give him some sort of appeal. Sadly, this appeal doesn’t extend to the recorded content of The Sound of Sunshine. For all its louche jangling, for all its pleasant naivety, there isn’t very much here that’s worth waking up to, nor lounging to, least of all gently lamenting the passing of the seasons to.