CD Review of Fight with Tools by Flobots
Recommended if you like
The Roots, Michael Franti, Linkin Park
Label
Universal Republic
Flobots: Fight with Tools

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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P
olitically conscious hip-hop out of Colorado? Sounds like a recipe for a granola-scented coma, but if you’ve heard “Handlebars,” the leadoff single from Fight With Tools that’s been making inroads on modern rock stations for the last couple of months, then you know that Flobots – love ‘em or hate ‘em – aren’t boring. Built around an instantly memorable hook that’s so simple a toddler could sing it, the song runs down a laundry list of childish boasts, from being able to ride a bike with no handlebars to…well, some not-so-childish stuff, actually, including being able to split an atom and end the world with a holocaust. It initially comes across sounding uncomfortably like Dynamite Hack after a semester spent reading Howard Zinn, but if you look past that insistent, love-it-or-hate-it melody, “Handlebars” is deceptively complex – the sort of single that suggests an act either has great things in store or has completely shot its wad before it even gets started.

Happily, Fight with Tools ends up being much more than just “Handlebars” plus 11 tracks of whack – in fact, it’s shockingly solid, especially for an album that the band released itself last year. And oh yes, by the way, we’re talking about a real live band here – rather than leaning on the typical electronic gimcracks and gewgaws, Flobots boast two emcees, a guitarist, a rhythm section, a trumpet player, and a violist. An unusual lineup for a hip-hop act, to be sure – not even the sousaphone-rockin’ Roots employ a viola – but it suits the subject material. This is politically aware hip-hop, and it certainly has angry undertones, but it’s never strident; Mackenzie Roberts’ strings and Joe Ferrone’s trumpet add an extra layer of melancholy to Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit’s manifestos. This works to the band’s benefit, because whether or not you agree with their message, you’ve almost certainly heard it before – and heard it enough to know that, in the wrong hands, even the most well-intentioned call to arms can sound like little more than soapbox noise.

Not so here. Lyrically, Fight with Tools might be made from dry ingredients, but Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit are clever enough to keep things interesting, and their twin delivery – equal parts urgency and optimism – is infectious enough to keep you nodding your head even if you don’t have anything between your ears. And if you’re sympathetic to the group’s political point of view? Heck, just one listen to cuts like “Stand Up” – and its repeated exhortations to “put your hands up, and I’ll copy you” – might be enough to get you involved in half a dozen volunteer groups. Like all the best preachers, Flobots know that anger is a powerful fuel, but hope is the strongest motivator of all. There’s plenty of both to go around here – and a stack of solid beats to go along with them. The year’s hip-hop calendar might have started off with Flo Rida’s ridiculous “Low,” but between this album and the Roots’ Rising Down, 2008 is shaping up to be a terrific year for fans of the genre.

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