Monday, July 31, 2006

Thoughts on Yell Fire! by Michael Franti & Spearhead

The first words you hear on Yell Fire!, the new album by Michael Franti & Spearhead are
Those who start wars never fight them
Those who fight wars never like them

Michael Franti has done it again. He has taken his fusion of rock, hip-hop, funk, r&b, and now reggae and blended it deftly with messages of deep social concern and, at the same time, hope and progress toward a better world. With all due respect to Ziggy Marley, John Mayer, Nelly Furtado, and Barenaked Ladies, there probably won't be a more important record released this year, and Franti has added a documentary film, I Know I'm not Alone, to boot. The film documents his trip in 2004 to Iraq, Israel, and Palestine.

I first tuned in to Franti when he led The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the early '90s. The Heroes' one album, Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, is a must-have. That album is chock-full of great observations on society and politics, including tunes like "Television: The Drug of the Nation," "Language of Violence," which is the story of a teenage bully who assaults and kills a boy he believes is gay and then is on the receiving end of an assault in prison; "California Uber Alles," an updated version of the old Dead Kennedys' tune, this time commenting on Cali's then-Gov Pete Wilson; and "Water Pistol Man," which is commentary on George H.W. Bush's New World Order.

When the Heroes broke up and Franti formed Spearhead, I just couldn't swing on the band's funky style. I wasn't funky enough. But two years ago Franti came back on the radar screen when I was exploring Ziggy Marley's website after picking up Ziggy's album Dragonfly. Ziggy and Franti toured together, and the rave reviews of Franti's shows piqued my interest. I picked up Franti's 2003 album Everyone Deserves Music, and it was on.

Both Everyone Deserves Music and Yell Fire bring a feeling of hope. It's realistic hope, though, not blissful, ignorant "don't worry be happy" hope. Franti knows we're in a world of hurt and expresses that, but when you listen to his music, you can't help but feel upbeat- "Yes, we can do better and we will do better." Anyone can write "American Idiot." (And I love that song.) Not everyone can write "What I Be" (from Everyone Deserves Music) with it's opening line
If I could be the sun, I'd radiate like Africa
Smile upon the world/Intergalactic love laughter
If I were the rain, I'd wash away the whole world's pain
Give the gift of cool like ice cream trucks on sunny days

The first single from Yell Fire is "I Know I'm not Alone," which you can hear and watch the video at the link and which was certainly inspired by Franti's trip to the Middle East. With a heavy bass, a building crescendo (I guess that's redundant), and crashing drums, it has the feel of U2.

Franti and his bandmates have a way of deftly mixing these various styles. This album has a clear reggae influence, which isn't surprising since part of it was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. There's a hint of reggae in "Time to go Home" and "One Step Closer to You," but the island party sound comes out fully in "Hey Now Now" and "Light Up Ya Lighter." Of course, it's not much of a party in the latter when he sings
Listen, young man, listen to my plan
Gonna make you money, gonna make you a man
Here's what you get, an M-16 and a Kevlar vest
You might come home with one less leg
But this thing will surely keep a bullet out your chest

And among all of this, Franti can mix in a soulful ballad, like "See You in the Light."

I have yet to watch the DVD but am looking forward to it. During his trip, Franti visited Iraqis and American soldiers. He visited Palestinians and Israelis who had lost loved ones to violence. He played his epic "Bomb the World" with its line, "You can bomb the world to pieces but you can't bomb it into peace," for troops in a hotel bar in Baghdad. When you're involved in these issues and speaking out on social justice, it's easy to cluster with your own kind, but Franti recognizes the need to reach out to all. He recognizes the humanity in all of us.

To learn more about Michael Franti & Spearhead and their recent projects, visit the news page of Spearhead's website. And be sure to checks out the video of "I Know I'm not Alone" above.

Michael Franti is one of the most important songwriters of my generation. Check him out now.

Like falling off a bike...

Rumors of the death of Nasty Little Man have been greatly exaggerated. I have every intention of getting back at the blogging action. (And thanks to Paula J for lighting a fire under me to get back at it.) Right after the spring semester ended (I'm in grad school part-time), my computer time dropped dramatically, so blogging has not been a priority. But things that have been going on have me thinking it's time to get back on the horse. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Do these people want a fight?

Try not to be sick. I need some Pepto.

NY Times: Lady Liberty trades in some trappings