(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Recording review - Michael Franti & Spearhead, All People (2013)

Anti-depressant, feel-good pop

"What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?" (Nick Lowe)

It's hard to remember Michael Franti's bitter side, when his righteous anger vented with the Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, or even the early Spearhead albums. As he has crossed over into wider popularity, he's tamped down his indignation and embraced his inner neo-hippy. All People continues the trend away from political frustration and hard edges; now, he and Spearhead are extending deeper into jam pop and eclectically bringing in more modern electronic dance elements.

More than his anger, I miss the nuanced depth Franti brought to songs like "Crime To Be Broke In America", "Positive", "Gas Gauge (Tha World's In Your Hands)", and "We Don't Mind", all of which had emotion and strength. All People,which carries on the easy affirmation of 2010's The Sound Of Sunshine, feels more superficial by contrast to his earlier work. Franti says, "These songs are about the power of unconditional love," and Nick Lowe's right, there's nothing funny or wrong with that. The problem is that, while unconditional love is a beautiful idea, it's hard to write about it and avoid cliche or settling for blissed-out gratitude. As a result, the album's lyrical themes don't measure up to the musical arrangements, which benefit from partnering with external production. The differences between the self-produced tracks and those by The Matrix or Adrian Newman are pleasantly striking, but with the updated pop sound across the album, Spearhead's old school fans won't find much of the band's reggae and funk roots.

Spearhead draws that line early on, opening with the title song, where glistening electro-pop gilds the otherwise soulful track. Franti's acoustic guitar part follows the band's more recent formula, but the dance beat thump vies for domination. With an escalating synth line, the electronic half of the this cyborg track wins. As last flickering arpeggios fade, "11:59" comes in on the soulful chorus, "It's 11:59 and 59 seconds/ If I'm gonna die tonight I want heaven/ Hey-ey, hey-ey, with you." The Matrix contribution is obvious as the layers of detail build on top of the solid tension of the beat, but the first lines of hip hop verse reach back to Franti's older chops and characteristic cadence. His words shine a light on a multitude of ills facing the world, but keeping to All People's party line, he remains steadfast in his optimism. Given that the song is inspired in part by the Trayvon Martin killing, I'd rather see the peacenik facade drop a little, but this is still my favorite track.

The other song that collaborates with The Matrix, "On And On", is another standout. The big pop sound is packed with uplifting strings, filigrees of electronica, and lightly camouflaged Beatlesque turns. Franti's lyrics sound autobiographical as his verses step through touchstone moments in a laid back reinvention of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire". At some points, like when he name-drops the White Stripes, it sounds like he's downshifting his age to better connect with his current fan base, but his flow is smooth. On my first listen, I had a reactionary moment, "This isn't the Spearhead I know and love." But, on its own terms, the pure pop perfection transcends the idea that the band should be trapped in amber.

That mental shift provides a better perspective to appreciate All People, from the New Order infused synth-pop of "Closer To You" to the 'Tom Tom Club does reggae rap' feel of "Earth From Outer Space". In that more liberal view of the band, the positive tip they've always had has bloomed. Peace, love, and understanding may be hard to find in the real world, but that doesn't mean we should cynically reject them. Spearhead's philosophy might be a bit simplistic, but their album is packed with feel-good pop that sticks in your brain. The Sound Of Sunshine may have started this happy march to optimism, but as All People follows the same path, it's easy to envision a full audience singing along on tracks like "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)" or "Show Me A Sign".

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