Coast to coast 

Sonorous sounds from Spearhead and Guster

Michael Franti
Everyone Deserves Music
Boo Boo Wax

It’s been almost six months since Michael Franti and Spearhead captured the hearts and minds of Missoula at the Wilma Theatre. Since that evening, I’ve heard those in attendance talk of the show in that nostalgic tone usually reserved for weddings or family reunions. Until a return performance is slated, fans should be more than appeased by Franti’s latest, and arguably greatest release, Everyone Deserves Music. The album is a departure from the ghosts of Franti past, trading in the hip-hop beats of Home and Chocolate Supa Highway for more R&B and soul-influenced sounds—the depth and passion of Curtis Mayfield, replete with funky high-hat hiss and ca-chink guitar scrapes.

Franti’s previous release, Stay Human, was widely regarded as one of the most underrated albums of 2001. There’s little doubt that Everyone Deserves Music will follow in those footsteps for 2003, since radio fears Franti the way ranchers fear brucellosis. This is due in no small part to choruses like those on Stay Human’s “Rock the Nation,” in which the Bay Area bard advocates a mass takeover of television and radio stations. The new album is more upbeat than the last, but don’t mistake its bouncy energy for a softening of Franti’s message. Particularly powerful are two versions of the track “Bomb the World,” one of which features Jamaican dub superstars Sly and Robbie. This attack on the philosophy that war can bring peace is somewhat ironic, since that is exactly what Franti is attempting with his music (declaring a “war on war,” as Wilco put it). Unlike past Spearhead albums, this one focuses on the music as much as the content. The vivacious “We Don’t Stop” utilizes a “Getting’ Jiggy Wit’ It” sort of chorus that’s every bit as infectious as Will Smith’s chart-topper, but you won’t hear it unless you buy the album, since the track consists of a lyrical litany of what Franti views as “new world” hypocrisies, including “Bush War I and Bush War II.” Most of the album is less overtly political, but it remains clear that this adopted son of an Oakland family has decided to stand up and lead. The album’s youthful resistance ignites a spark that another sometimes Bay Area-based writer, Hunter S. Thompson, described so well in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a “sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense…our energy would simply prevail.” Thompson describes that feeling as a wave that never comes again. But anyone who felt the airborne electricity of Spearhead’s Missoula show knows that no tide goes out without returning.

Keep It Together
Reprise Records

The Massachusetts trio Guster will likely be entering the pop music vernacular shortly. I first ran into these guys playing their acoustic guitars and bongo drums on a sidewalk of Harvard Square in Boston. I studied their CD (titled “Gus” at the time; the “ter” was added later to differentiate the buskers from a neo-Nazi band named Gus) they were hawking for five bucks. Then singer Ryan Miller’s voice cracked. He stopped.

“Hey, if you buy that CD, I promise that won’t happen on it,” he said.

I did and it didn’t, and I’ve been digging both the music and the wry humor of Guster ever since. These days, however, Guster isn’t playing on street corners, and that’s not all that’s changed.

Percussionist Brian Rosenworcel, who swore by hand percussion for the majority of Guster’s career, has forgone the nights of icing his wounded appendages for the band’s latest release, Keep It Together. Rosenworcel was a sight to see, creating a rock and roll sound on drums by punishing his hands mercilessly. On the new album, he’s opted for a game of pick-up-sticks. This changes Guster’s sound drastically, and the advent of more electric guitar and the addition of a bass player make Keep It Together the most “traditional rock band” piece of music ever released by the trio. Fortunately, despite the more mainstream instrumentation, Guster has not lost its primary asset: soaring vocal harmonies. These dudes can sing—in natural voices, too, not some put-on baritone to cop a Vedder, or an equally irritating staged aloofness whose honesty, I think, wore off with the disappearance of Dave Pirner. Aside from the new sticks and bass, Guster experiments with a banjo on one track, and all kinds of brass and woodwinds. The forays beyond the familiar appear to be paying off, as the band appeared with Jay Leno on July 21 and has made a video for the album’s single, “Amsterdam.” (On a side note, why is it that the least original, yet so-catchy-it-itches track always has to be the single?) The highlight of Keep It Together is actually a hidden track which may or may not be called “Two at a Time,” featuring Guster singing about Noah’s Ark. The band does well to add a chorus of children singing along to build to its gleeful conclusion. Here, the good-time, fun-loving attitude of Guster comes across. Listeners should have something to look forward to for a long time to come, provided this young band can, in the face of growing success, “keep it together.”

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