Songs from This Album
Album Reviews: Yell Fire! Live by Michael FrantiIt's ironic that Michael Franti's latest Spearhead album, Yell Fire!, comes just as the situation in the Middle East has deteriorated to its worst state in more than 20 years. Franti recorded the album, his most heartfelt plea for peace and coexistence yet, after returning from a trip to the Middle East. There, he shot a documentary called I Know I'm Not Alone, based on his experiences meeting citizens and soldiers in Iraq, Israel and the Gaza Strip. Like Franti's music, the film is at once angry and hopeful, offering a reassuring faith in people's inherent goodness, even though it offers no real answers to the political and religious conflicts that tear their communities apart. And like that film, Franti's new record is equal parts inspiring, entertaining, thought-provoking and frustrating -- because as good as it is, it's also a little too safe and polite to be the musical/political bombshell it could have been.
What Franti and Spearhead do best is the same thing that Matisyahu almost managed to take to the mainstream earlier this year: a party-friendly mix of pop, hip-hop and reggae, spiced up with a few rock guitar hooks and politically and/or spiritually challenging lyrics. For all of Matisyahu's success, Franti is much better at it -- no, he can't spit rhymes like a dancehall champion, but infectious songs like "Hello Bonjour" and "Everybody Ona Move" are guaranteed to get any festival crowd bouncing, while his best "political" songs have a universal, Bob Marley-ish appeal that make lines like "God is too big for just one religion" sound like greeting-card truisms. And with each Spearhead album, Franti continues to get better at mixing things up with ballads and straight-ahead pop songs, although he still tends to tip his influences a little too blatantly -- "I Know I'm Not Alone," for example, employs the same uplifting chords as U2's "With or Without You," while the chorus on "One Step Closer to You" is a carbon copy of Marley's "No Woman No Cry," right down to the purring Hammond organ.
Still, for me, Franti remains a frustrating artist. He's a vibrant, charismatic performer with a unique singing style, great pop sensibilities and something important to say. But the fiery temperament he flashed in his younger days with the Disposible Heroes of Hiphoprisy has been largely replaced by a warmth and serenity that is appealing, but too often slips into feel-good blandness. He delivers too many bear hugs and not enough right hooks -- and in a world in which Israel and Hezbollah are threatening to drag a whole region into war, hugs might not be enough to get the message across. - Andy Hermann
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