The Good: Impressive lyrics, Great musical diversity, Generally decent voice
The Bad: Some dated references, Short
The Basics: Flobots has an impressive debut with Fight With Tools, an album loaded with political references that (mostly) holds up even now!
When I first met the woman who would become, incredibly quickly, my wife, we shared music with one another. There was a song or two she was enamored with at the time that managed to stick in my head, but the years I have on her gave me musical tastes that are a bit different from her and her newfangled music. Despite having some very different musical tastes, one of the two music videos that she shared with me early on was a video for the Flobots song "Handlebars" and I agreed with her that it was brilliant - both musically and as a music video. After a particularly brutal political season in the United States, I decided to make Flobots my August Artist Of The Month and delve into their musical library to see what they had outside the single, incredibly impressive, single.
The debut album of Flobots is Fight With Tools and it is far more than the one single. Fight With Tools might well be the single most important political album since Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planet (reviewed here!). My primary concern before listening to Fight With Tools was that the alternative album's appeal might not have survived the events of the Bush Administration - that their specific allusions might make their work dated. Fortunately, or perhaps the most tragic statement on American politics yet, most of Fight With Tools remains relevant today.
With only twelve tracks, clocking out at 45:35, perhaps the biggest strike against Fight With Tools is that it is short. All of the songs are written and composed by the sextet who make up the band Flobots. They provide all of the vocals and play most of the instruments and the band is credited with producing Fight With Tools. As a result, it is hard to argue that the resulting album is anything other than what the band intended it to be.
Instrumentally, Fight With Tools is a pleasantly diverse album. Neither a simple rock band with bass, guitars and drum, nor a typical hip-hop group with synths and samples overwhelming, Flobots chart their own musical course balancing the melodies they create with their vocals. Relying upon a decent array of instruments - trumpets and cellos interact with bass and drums - Flobots created a truly musical album with alternating harmonization and chants. What might surprise those who decry hip hop and modern rock is how many of the songs have very memorable melodies - from the transitory musical experience of "Handlebars" to the pounding, hypnotic crescendo of "Rise," Fight With Tools illustrates that Flobots was committed from the very beginning to creating music, not just message.
Instead of just angry men yelling, which is the foundation of a lot of rap and hip-hop, Flobots tries to push beyond that on Fight With Tools. For sure, "Rise" and "Stand Up" have vocals that sound like what one would expect from the Beastie Boys, but most of Fight With Tools allows the two lead singers of Flobots to be melodic and clearly state their lyrical cases with vocals that illustrate a decent range. On a couple of songs, like "Never Had It," the vocals are dominated by Mackenzie Roberts and her voice offers a strong contrast to keep Fight With Tools auditorily interesting. Regardless of whether it is Roberts, Brer Rabbit, Andy Guerrero or Jonny 5 providing the vocals, the vocals on Fight With Tools are almost entirely comprehensible, which is critical for an album that has a strong political message that it actually wants understood.
And the bulk of Fight With Tools is unabashedly political, pushing a strong liberal agenda against an overbearing government that places profit for corporations over the welfare of the citizens governed. With lines like "I pound on this table / 'Til it gives me something to say / Then I think about things that I've seen / Right in front of me / That I don't wanna believe / Gimme one of these mikes / Lemme let 'em know / The way that it is is not how it's gonna be" ("Mayday!!!"), Flobots declare an eagerness to stand up for the needs of the common people. On Fight With Tools, Flobots take on government intervention in foreign governments, wars for oil, racism, and corporate profiteering over human life in incidents like the government response to Hurricane Katrina.
While "Handlebars" has an impressive music video that makes explicit the divergent lives that illustrate lives of creativity versus dictatorship, there are much more specific and powerful lines in "Stand Up" and "Same Thing." When Flobots sings about how "We shall not be moved / Except By a child with no socks and shoes / If you've got more to give then you've got to prove / Put your hands up and I'll copy you / Stand up We shall not be moved / Except by a woman dying from the loss of food" ("Stand Up"), it is hard for Americans - humans everywhere, really - not to empathize and want to get involved with the struggle to fight such injustices.
There are, alas, some dated lyrics and very specific allusions. Having lived through the early-00s, I can easily recall "Move / Like the dude from Chappelle's show . . .This is out of hand like Buster Bluth / Leave you sounding like Rusted Root " ("The Rhythm Method (Move!)"), but those allusions lack some of the universal quality of most of the messages on Fight With Tools. That does not make the album bad, but it does date a few of the songs.
That is not, however, nearly enough to sink the album. Fight With Tools is a powerful album that attempts to awaken the American populace to rebellion against the status quo. This should be the soundtrack of any activist working in the United States today.
The best track is "Stand Up," the low point is probably "Never Had It," which is good but probably suffers by comparison from simply being right after "Handlebars."
For other, prior, Artist Of The Month works, please visit my reviews of:
Greatest Hits - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions - R.E.M.
Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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