A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Michael Franti and Kings Of Leon.
FOR THE PEOPLE: When the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy emerged on the hip-hop scene in the early 1990s, there was talk that leader Michael Franti would grow into a sort of Chuck D.
Like the Public Enemy frontman, Franti's politically-charged raps moved away from the norm, touching on punk rock and jazz. His current group, Spearhead, has continued to explore his multi-genre tendencies, and new album, "Everyone Deserves Music," is essentially a hip-hop-infused soul record.
The centerpiece of the set is "Bomb the World," which appears in two forms. The first is an elegant, Curtis Mayfield-influenced soul track, with an acoustic melody and some jazzy guitar-work. The show-stopping chorus -- "We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can't bomb it into peace" - arrives like a plea.
The second rendition near the album's end is a reggae-influenced rap cut featuring Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. The acoustic melody has been replaced with knifing power chords, and Franti gives his hippie-like sloganeering a more radical edge, condemning mainstream media and arguing that the war on terrorism is a sham. Positioned as a call to Congress, Franti sarcastically asks, "Why you not bombing Tim McVeigh's hometown?"
The two versions of the song give new listeners a quick lesson in Franti's diversity. Although political, the song comes first and he is just as comfortable rapping as singing. Unlike 2001's "Stay Human" (Boo Boo Wax), a theatrical-like dissertation against the death penalty, "Everyone Deserves Music" is a compact, 12-song effort that's not so much anti-war as it is pro-love. Like Sly Stone, Franti gives his songs a social context, but his message that all the world needs is a little peace and love outshines his revolutionary tendencies.
"I'm trying to write hopeful songs that can be songs of healing, but I'm also not gonna shy away from the fact that we all have a responsibility to put an end to violence in all its forms," Franti recently told Billboard.com. "We have ups and downs and tribulations in life, but it's no reason to ever give up our dream about creating a peaceful world and a just world. I think sometimes we let go of that dream and vision when we get angry or when we get hurt, or when we've gone through some ups and downs."
Since the release of "Stay Human," Franti has received a bounty of press and played dates at such music festivals as Coachella in Southern California and Bonnaroo in Tennessee.
Released two weeks ago via ArtistDirect's iMusic label, "Everyone Deserves Music," became Franti's first to reach Billboard's charts, landing last week at No. 25 on the magazine's Heatseekers tally. As Franti's base is San Francisco, much of the album's sales were expectedly generated on the West Coast.
Franti and Spearhead will tour the West Coast through the end of September with a venture to the rest of the country slated for mid-October.
SOUTHERN KINGS:The Kings of Leon have been hyped as the new sound of Southern garage, with much attention focused on their upbringing in the church. On songs such as "Trani," however, the band creates a sound that worships the minutes before last call.
The guitarist sounds relaxed, creating a pre-hangover riff that's strutting somewhere between Lou Reed and Keith Richards. The rhythm is supplied by little more than a tambourine for much of the cut, and the singer is mumbling as if he has a cigarette in his mouth. The few discernable words hint at something about a hooker in a bar in a Greyhound station.
Comprised of four members of the Followill family, the Nashville-based rock act, creates a Southern barroom stomp that mixes the bluesy drawl of Skynyrd with the energy of the Black Crowes and adds in the necessary swagger to keep modern rock fans interested. Debut album, "Youth and Young Manhood," was released two weeks ago via RCA Records
Kings of Leon brothers Caleb (vocals, guitar), Nathan (drums) and Jared (bass) were born to a Pentecostal preacher, and spent their formative years on the road trolling through Southern churches. If the music of the group -- cousin Matthew rounds out the lineup on guitar -- doesn't bear a religious influence, it does bleed with a road-tested weariness. Rockers such as "Joe's Head" and the hormone-fueled "Molly's Chambers" sound like a looser, sex-obsessed Tom Petty, and the characters than inhabit the band's songs are often the kind one fears of running into at a diner in the middle of the night.
The young group (no one is older than 23), signed to RCA about a year ago. An EP preceded the release of "Youth and Young Manhood," and got the band some prime press and created a small buzz. That turned to a roar across the Atlantic, where the band has already scored a top-30 single on Music & Media's Eurochart.
A slot on this summer's Lollapalooza gave the band some much-needed U.S. exposure, and "Youth and Young Manhood" debuted last week at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers tally. The set also entered The Billboard 200 at No. 113.
Kings Of Leon launched a headlining month-long club tour earlier this week.