When I heard Michael Franti and his band Spearhead were releasing a new album, I was quite excited about revisiting a singer and band who had rocked my world in the mid 1990s. In 1993 when I used to listen to Radio 1’s Evening Session, I was introduced to the political funk-rap of Franti’s band The Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy. “Television – drug of the nation” snarled Franti, “breeding ignorance and spreading radiation” – this resonated with a period of my life, during which time I avoided all television, for all the reasons Franti outlined.
A few years later, Franti had found a new band, Spearhead, with whom he hit a warmer note. His music was soulful, sometimes songs of woe, sometimes cries of hope, “I am deadly serious about us having fun” he asserted in “People in Tha Middle” as if enjoying yourself was political resistance. When Franti cooed and soothed, it was like being nursed to sleep by the father that I never had.
Then, nothing, until just a few weeks ago. Twenty years on, the name Soulrocker, which Spearhead chose for their new album seemed to sum up everything I’d previously known about Franti, but to my surprise betrayed everything about the album itself. Soulrocker is less rock and more pop. Fifteen minutes into my first listen, half occupied by other things, I woke up, as if in a nightmare, wondering what awful set of events had led me to be listening to R&B! “Yeurgh!” I thought, I have an instinctive aversion to this genre. When I realised I was supposed to be listening to Soulrocker by Michael Franti and Spearhead I had to check I’d put the right CD in. It took some while to resolve this cognitive dissonance, but with time I began to find lots to like about the album.
Above all Soulrocker is catchy. I don’t follow the charts but I can’t see why Radio 1 wouldn’t want to play Franti’s tracks ten thousands times a day, as is the custom. I can’t see why circles of hen and stag parties wouldn’t be stomping to the housier tracks in nightclubs all over provincial England and in the capitals of Eastern Europe. Furthermore the album seems to have been produced for the teen market. Franti demonstrates an unusually carefree naivety in his singing, the need to sing out about injustice conspicuous by its absence. The weirdest thing is Franti’s voice: the path of undulated growls and purrs, which it previously trod, has now been steamrollered. The result is a flat, pleasant, radio friendly sound. Michael Franti, pleasant? Its as if some communications guru has given him a dressing down, a shave and a suit, to give him every chance of winning the election for President of the United States of Pop Music.