Utne Reader Music Reviews: November-December 2008

Music for the Movement
All Rebel Rockers (Anti-)
by Michael Franti and Spearhead 

Michael Franti has always had his fist in the air and a smile on his face, and if you think that’s incongruous, his music can probably change your mind. All Rebel Rockers is a potent place to start, with famed reggae producers Sly and Robbie ricocheting dub and dance hall beats to abet Franti’s funky hip-hop, and with lyrics that are more specific, hopeful, and incendiary than ever.

Franti has never lacked for ingenuity. He has founded a decade-old annual peace festival, directed a film documentary that won an award from Amnesty International, written a children’s book, and literally put his lyrics on bumper stickers. All Rebel Rockers represents his most canny mixture yet of political topicality and musical accessibility. While he lambastes the Patriot Act and chants for activism on “Hey World,” the opening groove is an infectious shuffle reminiscent of the bubblegum ’60s hit “My Boyfriend’s Back.” On “The Future,” Franti churns out couplets like “They tell you that war is a permanent thing / And the American Idol kids really can sing.” And there are unmistakable echoes of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” on the affirming closer, “Have a Little Faith.”

Franti’s ace in the hole is his ability to stimulate lefty catharsis. Roll your hips or pogo your hamstrings to “A Little Bit of Riddim,” and sing along as he barks, “To those who torture / Whoa now devil / I’m coming for ya.” You’ll have enough juice left afterward to clean your house, or canvass your block. –Britt Robson

Riffing on India
Kinsmen(Pi Recordings)
by Rudresh Mahanthappa
Featuring Kadri Gopalnath and the Dakshina Ensemble

Modern downtown jazz meets classical Indian spiritual music in this riveting collaboration between two saxophonists. U.S.-based jazz player Rudresh Mahanthappa brings an edgy, experimental sensibility to the proceedings, while Kadri Gopalnath, a legend in Indian classical music known as “the emperor of the saxophone,” anchors the music in ancient knowledge, specifically the Carnatic tradition of southern India. Their interplay makes it seem like the most natural pairing ever, with complex time signatures that create beautiful textures and intertwining horn parts that spiral up toward transcendence. Their backup musicians, also a cross-cultural crew, urge them along forcefully to that higher ground. –Keith Goetzman

Sublime Collision
Eyes at Half Mast (Arena Rock)
by Talkdemonic

This Portland-based instrumental duo will take a doltish banjo and run a beat under it at quadruple time, and the instruments still complement each other equally and naturally. Fearing no sound beyond or between mud-sliding digital drones or breathing accordions, they have a way of sneaking up on a groove with a light hand and a short attention span. They’ll build from gentle acoustic strumming to blown-out crashes and evil violin lines so fast that you wonder if something is lost in the rush. But front man Kevin O’Connor’s compositions reflect his love of spare, appetizing hip-hop beats, full of hidden emphasis and inventive texture. –Ty Otis

Twice the Heartache
Rattlin’ Bones(Sugar Hill)
by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson

Kasey Chambers is a platinum artist in Australia, which shows that Aussies have better taste in country music than Americans: Her rootsy, unpolished sound is miles away from slick U.S.-style “hot country.” On Rattlin’ Bones she duets with her husband, Shane Nicholson, on songs that smolder and steam with emotional power. The title track is a haunting death song in the style of an Appalachian ballad; “Wildflower” showcases the aching vulnerability at the core of Chambers’ appeal. She grew up singing campfire songs in the Outback with her nomadic family, and on Rattlin’ Bones she shows that she hasn’t wandered too far from the fire ring. –K.G.

The Rapture Is Here
Snake Charmer and Destiny at the Stroke of Midnight(Trekky)
by the Physics of Meaning

Multi-instrumentalist Daniel Hart begins Snake Charmer with a bracing violin overture whose last notes usher in a series of baroque pop songs as catchy as they are exotic, marrying abstract lyrics and intricate arrangements to arresting melodies and tight, organic grooves. Hart’s musical vocabulary is broad, incorporating strings, a huge drum sound, intimate lullabies, joyous sing-alongs, and expertly layered production. Most of the songs’ structures border on the epic without becoming pretentious, their intensity building gradually and exploding during cathartic refrains and rapturous finales. It’s a bewitching formula that Hart and his long roster of coconspirators execute expertly, using their prodigious musicianship and an extensive sonic palette to construct an ambitious opus. –Jake Mohan

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