By: John Smrtic
There is a noticeable change of intention on Michael Franti & Spearhead's latest album, All Rebel Rockers (arriving September 9 on Anti Records). Yes, there are certainly songs about the state of the world with the fiery, thought provoking lyrics and brilliant social observations that have made Franti famous. But ultimately, Rockers is a highly danceable, reggae drenched album intended to foster a letting go of worries and troubles in its attempt to bring unity through riddim.
Legendary Jamaican producers Sly & Robbie are largely responsible for successfully manifesting of this new vision. The duo's reggae sensibilities are not completely new to the Spearhead sound as they fashioned some tracks on the band's previous album, 2006's Yell Fire! Combining Franti's rebel mentality with the reggae "rockers" sound made famous by Sly and Robbie, All Rebel Rockers flows as a natural progression in the Spearhead evolution.
The production and musicianship truly stand out on the first half of the album, where the lyrics may not be quite what we've grown accustomed to on the last three Spearhead albums. For instance, the dub sound permeates the album but is particularly brilliant on the laid-back stylings of opener "The Rude Boys Back in Town" and the downright sexy "All I Want Is You."
The unique combination of dancehall reggae with a rock backbone is notable on "A Little Bit of Riddim" and the charged-up, sing-along chorus of Franti's fearless look at death on "Life in the City." "Soundsytem" uses the rebel rock formula with subtle hints of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" and the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" to create a head nodding number, where Franti states the albums purpose:
Rebel music on the dance floor
Tell me what you fightin' for
Because this DJ gonna keep you alive
Forget about your troubles and your 9 to 5.
Franti & Spearhead are at their best on "Hey World (Don't Give Up Version)." Musically more understated than most of the other offerings, acoustic guitar, finger snaps, minimalist bass, percussion and sparse keyboard lines merge to create a pensive masterpiece pleading for the Earth not to give up on humankind and vice versa. In a soulful, longing voice, Franti asks:
Tell me why it's ok /to kill in the name of the gods we pray
Tell me who said it's ok/ to die in the name of the lies we say
Tell why there's child soldiers/ tell me why they closed the borders
Tell me how to fight disease/ tell me now oh won't you please.
The percolating neo-soul vibe on the album is most evident on "High Low." Arguably the grooviest tune on Rockers, Franti muses on the dual nature of human experience and our tendency to always want to be high but ending up dwelling in the polarities of either high or low. Zap Mama founder Marie Daulne adds sultry vocals to the mix, further making it a memorable, steamy affair.
"Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong" eloquently addresses a similar dilemma of the duality of existence but this time with clarity and some resolution. As much as Franti has been an activist, his well-documented explorations of yoga practice and philosophy have turned him into a spiritual activist. Realizing that defining one's life by what you are against is no real way to live and only deepens dual experience and polarities, Franti is for peace rather than being anti-war. A matter of semantics you may say, but nonetheless, a real difference to someone courageous enough to bring the vision of peace and unity through music to the world. The track ends with the poignant line: One man got a jet fighter/ and the other got a song/ nobody right/ nobody wrong.
Infectious hooks, catchy choruses, stellar musicianship, top flight production and a mix of politically relevant and fun lyrics makes All Rebel Rockers another Spearhead gem. The album will doubtlessly provide a soundtrack for your life as summer turns to fall, whether you're in your vehicle, the dancehall or yoga studio. And really, what more could you ask from an album than that? A little bit of riddim makes the world go ‘round, indeed.
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