Featured Album: Yell Fire! by Michael Franti & Spearhead
Michael Franti & Spearhead: Yell Fire! (Anti)
WHO: American alt.rapper, hippie icon, social activist and renowned all-round nice guy Michael Franti takes a camera and a guitar to Iraq, Israel and what he calls Palestine, and, as well as a documentary movie based on the experience (I Know I’m Not Alone) returned to record Yell Fire!, Spearhead’s finest hour.
WHAT: On Spearhead’s last album, Stay Human, Franti – whose politics extend back to previous bands The Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy – crushed his music with the weight of its message. On Yell Fire!, he has finally achieved the ideal balance. Musically, the album divides between ragga-reggae recorded in Kingston, JA with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare as rhythm section, and more soulful rock ballads recorded in Spearhead’s San Francisco hometown. The result is a Carribean-flavored album that makes you move as much as it makes you think. And while sometimes it makes you want to shout and occasionally makes you think of despair, it’s still the most upbeat hour of anger I’ve heard in a long time.
WHY: Franti described his newly positive approach in an interview with KEXP. “Before I went (to Iraq), I thought… ‘I know I’m going to come back and write these really compelling anti-war songs,’ but what I found was that when I was there, people didn’t want to hear songs that talked about war. They wanted to hear songs that were about connecting to other people. They wanted to hear songs that were sad at times, so they could have a relief, the blues…. but they also wanted to rejoice and celebrate. More than anything, that was what people told me over and over again. So the songs that ended up on Yell Fire, a lot of them are really exuberant and up-tempo songs.”
WINNERS: Indeed, Yell Fire! works best when it’s musically positive, a rhythmic framework that still enables Franti to get lyrically righteous. ‘East To The West,’ ‘Hello Bonjour,’ ‘Everybody Ona Move,’ ‘Light Up Ya Lighter’ and the title track ‘Yell Fire’ are all (occasionally too) simple, tropically flavored dance(hall) tracks, any of which could ignite a (political?) party.
WORDS: Franti is not so perfect that he doesn’t open the album with an unproven absolute: “Those who start wars never fight them/and those who fight wars never like them.” (‘Time To Go Home.) Nor is he shy of sharing his love of God: “I believe in the miracle, I believe in the spiritual, I believe in the one above, I believe in the one I love.” (‘One Step Closer To You.’) But that doesn’t mean he has time for organized religion: “Don’t tell a man that he can’t come here cause he got brown eyes and a wavy kind of hair/and don’t tell a woman that she can’t go there because she prays a little different to a God up there.” (‘Hello Bonjour’) He’s a firm believer in change: “A revolution never come with a warning/a revolution never send you an omen/a revolution just arrive like the morning/ring the alarm we come to wake up the snorin’.” (‘Yell Fire.’) And when he lets loose on our current War(s), he does so with greater precision than a laser-guided missile, as with this frightening assertion from the perspective of the army recruiter. “Come on come one, sign up come on/This one’s nothing like Vietnam/except for the bullets, except for the bombs/except for the youth that’s gone.” (‘Light Up Ya Lighter.’)
WHINE: Spearhead’s attempts at soulful rock descend into U2 lite: the first single ‘I Know I’m Not Alone’ and ‘See You In The Light’ both sound like poor imitations of Bono’s ‘One.’ With 14 songs, Yell Fire is at least two tracks too long. And if you get too close, Franti’s artistic limitations become apparent. Better to view Yell Fire as a package.
WEB: I expected more from Spearhead Vibrations than the opportunity to vote on the upcoming tour poster, download four old songs via MP3s, and read just the odd news story and review of the new album. Franti, of all people, seems like a man who should be blogging.
WINE: Franti is a vegan yoga master who eschews shoes. In which case, even if he’s teetotal, he surely won’t mind me recommending the Barefoot line of wines from his native California’s Sonoma County: easy wines at comfortable prices, they won’t stand up to the competition of the grand masters, but they evoke the hippy lifestyle, and are guaranteed to get a party started.