[Book Review] Michael Franti’s What I Be

Hi again!

Though this is a book review for Michael Franti‘s book – What I Be – I have to preface the review bits with a story… Feel free to skip ahead to the review bits, but I wanted to provide a bit of context.

In March 2010, my wife and daughters went to the John Mayer concert at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. Opening for Mayer was Michael Franti, the lead vocalist for Spearhead. My girls were just as excited about Michael as they were about seeing John Mayer, though I had never heard the song “Say Hey (I Love You)” before we purchased the tickets for my youngest daughter’s 5th birthday.

When they arrived at the concert, they were met inside by a lady we only know as the “John Mayer Ticket Fairy.” And when this nice gal discovered that this was AJ’s first rock concert, she gave the three of them front row tickets on the spot. To say the least, everybody had an amazing time during the concert and both my daughters were brought on stage with several other kids in the audience to dance and sing with Michael.

We will never be able to top this concert experience. But I think Michael has made friends for life.

When my wife discovered that Michael had written a children’s book – What I Be – she asked me to see if I might be able to get it to review. So I asked the nice folks who handle the press for Mr. Franti if they’d mind if I did so and they were kind enough to send not just one copy, but four! We’ll be donating a copy to the elementary school my daughters attend as well as the Pikes Peak Library District in our home town of Colorado Springs.

So what is What I Be? What I Be originally appeared as a song on Michael’s album Everybody Deserves Music and was adapted as an illustrated children’s book later. The story emphasizes the journey of self-acceptance that we all go through as kids and even as adults by taking on the characteristics of nature, which is a great analogy that just about everybody can probably understand.

Far too often, I think we look at nature but don’t see it for what it is. We consider ourselves apart from nature, when in fact we wouldn’t be here without it. So though the book centers on the journey of self, I think there’s also an environmental aspect to the story that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The main message is to share those qualities with others you most want to be associated with. Enjoy life and share laughter, wash away the pain of others, and generate clean air like the tallest trees. Understand your heritage, share the fruits of your labor, feel emotions like waves on the ocean… How can you argue with those sentiments? Through the use of analogy, metaphor, simile, and expressive, descriptive adjectives kids will connect with this book on multiple levels.

Ben Hodson illustrated the book beautifully in a style that evokes the openness of Michael’s message and makes it very kid-friendly. He’s illustrated other book such as Pigs Aren’t Dirty, Bears Aren’t Slow and Other Truths about Misunderstood Animals,” which has such an intriguing title I had to order a copy.

Also included with What I Be is a CD featuring Michael, his son Ade Franti-Rye, and their friend Youssoupha Sidibe singing along and playing with the text of the book. It’s fun to read along with Michael and listen to Sidibe playing a Kora (Senegalese harp).

If you’re looking for a colorful, fun book as a gift for some young reader, What I Be lays a beautiful foundation for further discussion of self acceptance and an awareness of our connection to nature. Definitely good messages all around. For more information about Michael Franti, Spearhead, or his book, be sure to check out his website at MichaelFranti.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Small – KiNDERGARTEN

Hi there…

Some bands defy categorization. KiNDERGARTEN falls into that camp for me. The four members’ diverse array of experience and musical talent mixes styles and influences with minimal effort and presents a unique sound that definitely leaves an impression.

My first exposure to the band was through their “The Man on the Stairs” video, which evokes a vibe that’s part “Thriller”, part Thomas Dolby. The creepy dancers in black and the entertaining video cuts and transitions that match perfectly with the bizarre, yet catchy tune. Who knew a song about being freaked out by a “dead man doin’ the moonwalk” upstairs would leave such a lasting impression?

But KiNDERGARTEN doesn’t stop there. “The Man On The Stairs” is joined by eleven other unique tracks on the album Small, which was released in early February 2010. The whole album is awesome, but I have a few favorites…

“Elementally Challenged” reminds me somehow of Rocky Horror Picture Show in the way it grooves along almost conversationally. In it, the band manages to mix rock sensibilities with the seasons. At first, we have a summer hotter than usual, then we have a winter “like a slow death in a meat locker,” which finally signals the end to the battle between the heat and cold in springtime. And like many of us in areas that suffer Mother Nature’s wrath at times in the passing of seasons, the singer is “elementally challenged” from time to time.

Then you have “C15-78Y” which hits me as a hard rock version of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” combining a very disparate, futuristic set of sounds with the story of a man with no name – just a number. He wants a name. He wants to know his family. Serious commentary on the harsh realities of the modern world set to a rockin’ tune. “Take your number, I’m tired of living a lie” he says – “just don’t gimme no number.” A sentiment I think many of us can identify with from time to time in the computerized age of rank and file.

The four members of Kindergarten have some serious music chops to their credit. Lead singer Ariel Levine started his music career in the 5th grade with saxophone and guitar, moved on to voice and theater in high school, and skipped college all together to learn audio engineering. From there, he worked as a professional music producer with such talents as Wynton Marsalis, Carmine Appice, Eric Lewis, and Collective Soul. In 2005, he decided to form his own band and connected with the other three artists.

Sakura Toyama is the group’s keyboardist. She started playing at age 3 and later earned a Bachelors in Musical Arts from the University of Michigan and an Artists Diploma from the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland. In 2001, she moved to New York City and had to give up playing piano for a while when she couldn’t fit one in her apartment. Later she heard Levine was looking for a keyboardist and became part of the band that became KiNDERGARTEN.

A year after Toyama joined the band, Levine needed a new bassist and met Zach Abramson while working on the soundtrack for an indie film called The Changeling. Abramson had just completed his Masters in Composition at the Manhattan School of Music and though he’d grown up playing classical piano, he’d picked up the bass guitar at age 12 because it was “cooler.” He performed in funk, jazz, and rock bands throughout middle and high school and through kismet, KiNDERGARTEN gained a new bassist.

The eldest of the group, Yancy Lambert, grew up playing horns and played in the drum and bugle corps as a teen. But he didn’t pick up the drums until age 20 after watching his older brother play for years. Self-taught on percussion, he sat in on local cover bands in Massachusetts and eventually moved to New York City in the late 1980s in several funk and soul groups. That work eventually led him to a regular spot with the music collective Brooklyn Funk Essentials, who played on several movie and television soundtracks. With his experience and range of influences, he seemed a natural fit for KiNDERGARTEN when Levine heard him working as a drummer in the studio where Levine worked.

KiNDERGARTEN’s first album, River of Slime was recorded, produced, and mixed by Levine in 2007. The band has played throughout NYC, including at CBGB’s, Knitting Factory, Mercury Lounge, and many others. And though Small was evidently more of a collaboration of the foursome, you honestly can’t tell this is a sophomore album. It blows my mind to think of the amount of musical talent and experience in this group. But if you listen to the music of KiNDERGARTEN, you can hear all that experience and all the influences come through in spades. It’s hard to believe they’ve only been together since 2005!

If you’re looking for something new, different, and funky, look no further than KiNDERGARTEN’s album Small. It’ll knock your socks off with intriguing lyrics and awesome rock. Be sure to check out their website at KiNDERGARTENNYC.COM for more details!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up KiNDERGARTEN MP3s at Amazon:

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Music Review: Vitamin String Quartet – Per_Versions

Hey there…

Just a few months ago, I’d never really considered that a string quartet might be able to play rock music. After hearing Break of Reality’s album Spectrum of the Sky, that changed. So when I heard of a different string group playing rock music, I knew I had to take a listen. The Vitamin String Quartet did not disappoint me.

Per_Versions takes songs from a variety of groups, including Spoon, The New Pornographers, Tom Waits, and others, then transforms the original compositions into covers as only a group of classically-trained string players could do. What you end up with is music that in most cases transcends the original artists to show that melody does exist where you might not have heard it in the original recording.

The Vitamin String Quartet (or VSQ for short) is a Los Angeles-based group of musicians that have released quite a large series of albums paying tribute to classic rock and roll acts, movie soundtracks, and more. Per_Versions continues the trend, covering songs from 12 different bands and three original compositions by the group.

Unlike Break of Reality, VSQ covers other bands, from the past and present. I have to admit that I was shocked to hear some of these songs played by strings, since most of them have been played on the radio in their original, sometimes overengineered or screaming guitar states. But when you strip away the electronics, distortion, and rock guitars, you end up with melody, musical themes, and hidden rhythms that allow those elements to shine.

Of all the tracks on the album, I have to say that two were my favorites. “The Way We Get By“, originally done by Spoon, really moves along from the quartet. Something about the groove really got into my head as it bobbed along with the back-beats of the bass behind the sliding bows of the higher strings. And “Sour Times“, originally done by Portishead, also has a different texture from the rest of the songs on the CD. It combines jazz sensibilities with the feel of a Fiona Apple song.

In addition to the 12 covers from other groups, there are three original compositions from members of VSQ. Though I appreciate the musical chops of this great array of artists, I found these songs a bit weird for my taste. The only thing I can compare them to is avant garde jazz compositions, which I often have the same reaction to. I’m sure they’re brilliant pieces, but they struck me as repetitive and containing odd chord progressions.

But beyond the three original tracks, I thought the rest of the album was fantastic. VSQ’s experiments in rock and pop covers proves to me without a doubt that classic training can bring out the music from the most unlikely sources. Where before the voices and rock guitars would mask such beautiful melodies, VSQ manages to uncover the secrets within the original works that we might not ever hear otherwise.

Per_Versions is but one of many albums from the Vitamin String Quartet. If you like classical or orchestral music, but prefer rock or pop, this just might be the group for you. For more of their offerings, be sure to check out Vitamin Records. I know I’ll be checking out more of their work!

Pick up a copy of Per_Versions at your favorite online or brick-and-mortar retailer and keep an eye out for any live dates that might come your direction!

–Fitz

p.s. Click here to pick up some great Vitamin String Quartet music from Amazon:

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