Spin Control


July 23, 2006



Michael Franti and Spearhead, "Yell Fire!" (Anti-) **

In the summer of 2004, the prolific Bay Area musician Michael Franti packed up his guitar and a video camera and made a one-man journey to the Middle East, stopping in Baghdad, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The results are a new documentary, "I Know I'm Not Alone"; an accompanying book with the same title, and "Yell Fire!," the fifth studio album by his band, Spearhead.

Through all of his musical guises -- the Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead -- Franti has steadfastly avoided labels, including the nebulous "alternative rap," and aggressively jumped from genre to genre while maintaining the common thread of an outspoken devotion to pacifism and Leftist politics, whether he's taking on American Imperialism or criticizing hip-hop for its misogyny. "Yell Fire!" cheerfully mixes reggae (the disc was partly recorded in Kingston with guest rhythm section Sly and Robbie), rap, soul and uninspired, U2-like arena rock (on the dreadful, bombastic ballads "I Know I'm Not Alone" and "See You in the Light"), while the lyrics convey Franti's take on the human suffering of war. The problem is that neither the sounds nor the words are as sophisticated as the complicated themes deserve.

The documentary "I Know I'm Not Alone" is revelatory because Franti introduces us to real people who are the unseen victims of the conflict. But even the exceedingly jam-band-friendly reggae tunes that are the most successful tracks here musically sink under the weight of oh-so-obvious lyrical observations such as, "Those who start wars never fight them / And those who fight wars never like them" (from the opening "Time to Go Home") and "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"). There's plenty to protest in 2006, but surely there's more to say than that.