When you fight against the powers that be, it's wise to have an army at your side. Michael Franti's been building one for years - progressive but detached legions across the festival-going globe with an eye for his walk-the-walk aesthetic and an ear for his gratuitously varied groove. And when he says dance, like he's doing now with the release of All Rebel Rockers, they will.
A worldly mix of German, Irish and African, a vegetarian and yogi, a composer and poet, a world activist and shoeless traveler since 2000 - the 42-year-old Oakland native has shown his fans for years how best to lead a peaceful yet revolutionary life. His music helps. Starting with fierce lyrics and hard-scrabble rap, Franti early on led his Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to critical acclaim and an to opening spot on U2's Zoo TV tour.
Then Franti branched out in 1994 to incorporate the funky soul in his heart by creating Spearhead. Since then, he's built a reputation for lyrical supremacy in hippie land. Perhaps you've seen this ubiquitous line from his post-9/11 "Bomb the World" on a T-shirt or bumper sticker: "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace." It's one of dozens of stick-to-your-brain truisms that mark his work with distinction.
But if it were just the stirring lyrics that stood out, you'd rather read them in a book. Luckily, the musings ride feel-good, head-bobbin' riddims coursing through a timeless roots/rock/soul/folk/rap heart of gold. No, G Love and Special Sauce didn't do it first. Franti and Spearhead have evolved through stripped-down folk/reggae into more roots-rock-heavy riffs with wailing harmonic choruses to this: an album of dub-inflected dancehall music tempered with an ever-present issue-oriented approach. Sprinkle in some love songs, and what you've got is yet another evolutionary advancement for the People's Republic of Franti.
While 2006's Yell Fire! brought Franti even closer to the Jamaican mainland, his latest effort is an all-out enunciation of his Marley-minded philosophy. It's the perfect complement to Franti's other output this year, the documentary I Know I'm Not Alone, a piercing humanitarian-minded journey through America's latest war zones.
Recorded in Kingston with roots masters Sly and Robbie (Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff), All Rebel Rockers has a throwback vibe that makes Franti's illuminating and rebellious sentiments suitable for the dance floor, a protest march or the bedroom. On songs like "Rude Boys Back in Town," "A Little Bit of Riddim" (one of three songs with Kingston dancehall legend Cherine Anderson) and "Hey World (Remote Control Version)," Franti utilizes a bass-heavy buzz to propel catchy melodies. "High Low," featuring Zap Mama's Marie Daulne, and "Life in the City" are mellow world music soul.
The rest of the material offers more ganja-inflected grooviness - the synth-flourished, baby-making "All I Want is You" and the sunny pop-rap of "Say Hey (I Love You)." The stirring, Ben Harper-like message song "Nobody Right Nobody Wrong" concludes, "It ended in a great big fight and when it's done, nobody right, nobody wrong." Believe it: It reads even better when it's blaring through speakers.