[16 September 2008]
Now six albums deep with All Rebel Rockers, Michael Franti and Spearhead have grown from their early politically-charged hip-hop to a style that is never stagnant. Although their message of peace, love, and human compassion has remained constant, this group’s sound has consistently evolved. And while you could never pigeonhole Spearhead to one specific genre, their last two albums definitely had discernible tinges of one. Yell Fire! was more of a rocker that drew from funk and reggae to build on the soul and folk leanings of Everyone Deserves Music. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that both of those records had equal amounts of funk, reggae, and folk. The gateway to this eclectic, albeit cohesive, style opened up on 2001’s Stay Human, an album that, amongst other issues, focused on the death penalty. Before then, Spearhead had stuck with groove-oriented rap, which was fitting but in need of some variety. So fortunately for their fans, Franti and his group upped their musical game as the years went on, though hip-hop has always been at their core.
Spearhead’s evolution has hit a new level on All Rebel Rockers, an album more fueled by reggae than any other genre. Franti and company have flirted with reggae since their inception. But this album takes the Caribbean flavor and just runs with it. Partially responsible for this transition are producers Sly and Robbie, Kingston, Jamaicans known for their work with everyone from Peter Tosh to Mick Jagger to Matisyahu. Sly and Robbie, who play drums and bass, respectively, helped produce Yell Fire! and Everyone Deserves Music as well, but their riddims were never as apparent as on All Rebel Rockers. Spearhead’s prior work with these two legendary musicians is perhaps what made the band’s shift to reggae both smooth and obvious. And to add an even more authentic feel to their sound, Spearhead recorded the entire album in Kingston.
Franti and Spearhead show their love for reggae right from the beginning. Opening track “Rude Boys Back in Town” is a slow-paced burner that is catchy to the point of exhaustion, mostly because you will find yourself wanting to hear it over and over. Basically, it’s Franti’s “I’m back” anthem, as he provides a rundown of the countries he has visited in the past few years. Although the subject matter is different, “Life in the City” is another mellow song. It features the frontman at his most brash as he raps, “still no politician got enough balls” matter-of-factly after discussing the federal government’s spy tactics.
Then there is the more upbeat Spearhead we all know and love. You know, the danceable, but introspective tracks made for sunny days. In particular there is “A Little Bit of Riddim”, which has a funky groove that calls for your dancing shoes while Franti touches on topics including Hurricane Katrina and injustice in general with his sing-songy delivery. While it doesn’t hit with the same urgency, “Hey World (Remote Control Version)” basically does the same. Standing above these cuts, however, is “Soundsystem”, which is driven by a perfect bassline and rough guitar riffs. Its huge chorus makes “Soundsystem” the best choice for pumping up a crowd full of activists.
Though he injects his politics into nearly every track, “Hey World (Don’t Give Up Version)” is easily the most successful at that. Franti sounds his most poetic as he bares his soul with an emotional tone that is matched beautifully by a simplistic beat and moody acoustic guitar finger-picking. Unfortunately, “Hey World (Don’t Give Up Version)” is followed by Spearhead’s most obnoxious political anthem in “The Future”. Many of the sentiments on this track were already heard on “Life in the City”, making “The Future” both repetitive and annoying. Although it’s not quite as grating, “Nobody Right Nobody Wrong” just doesn’t have the legs already displayed by “Hey World (Don’t Give Up Version)”.
As they have in the past, Spearhead have to show they aren’t all about politics and world peace. To prove that point, they deliver a three-peat of tracks made for the lovebirds out there. The group wisely juxtaposes slow jam “All I Want Is You” next to the addicting and groovy “Say Hey (I Love You)” and the poppy “I Got Love for You”. All three songs are effective in their own ways. Yet as borderline-cheesy as it is, “Say Hey (I Love You)” is the most enjoyable. “All I Want Is You” is simply more in line with cuts from Everyone Deserves Music. It stands out for the wrong reasons. And “I Got Love for You” comes across as more of a universal love track than one you would dedicate to that special someone in your life. It is infectious and dance-worthy, but a bit too safe. Its acoustic counterpart is “Have a Little Faith”. Guitar strums, finger-snapping, and shakers provide the musical backdrop for Franti telling the listener to “be strong for me / I’ll be strong for you.” But the lovey-dovey contest is won easily by “High Low”, one of All Rebel Rockers’ best tracks. It features a duet between Franti and Marie Daulne of Zap Mama. Their voices could not be any more different. Franti’s sometimes gruff voice sounds humbled by Daulne’s high-reaching vocals, making for an interesting union.
All Rebel Rockers might not be perfect, far from it, but it proves that Spearhead can remain relevant. Even on their sixth record together, they still churn out catchy and socially conscious tracks that tickle your dancing bone and make you think at the same time. While Franti isn’t exactly the deepest lyricist to hold a pen, his straightforward, poignant delivery is what makes his sometimes overbearing views easy to digest. But that is not always the case. For example, “The Future” shows that Franti and Spearhead need to lay off sometimes, particularly because we have all heard tracks like it before. We know Franti wants to make a difference, and that’s great. But he should just try to not preach so much next time.