Crossover hip-hop is a tricky science. The music has to be good, but it can't be too polished: if it is, you run the risk of being thrown in with the metal rap-rock crowd, and seen as a corporate tool; a product rather than an artist. In other words, a rap act seeking to escape the crunk pigeonhole has to be talented, but not showy – and it's a bonus if you've got strongly held convictions. From that angle, the Flobots have already won. Given their strong indie roots and politically-motivated lyrics, their breakout with the incredibly tight, clever alt-rock-radio hit “Handlebars” (and its powerful, searing animated video) seems like a refreshingly authentic success story. The big test, of course, is the album from which this masterful single was lifted. So how does Fight With Tools hold up? Well, prepare for another pleasant surprise – the answer is, “pretty damn well.”
From a purely musical standpoint, the album is simple, but it's also elegant and deliberate. You never feel like the band is using simple techniques to make up for a lack of talent – rather than canvassing the tracks with noise to back the rap vocals, the Flobots use carefully layered instrumentals to craft a sparse, skeletal feel where the focus is on the lyrics. To add a classy touch, the album includes beautiful string and brass parts mixed in with the traditional rock arrangements – “Handlebars,” for instance, prefaces its final verse with a surprising jazz trumpet solo, and “Stand Up” is based around an elegant violin riff. Overall, think “solid” and “fresh” -- Fight With Tools isn't breaking barriers with the raw talent in its instrumentals, but it does have a great, relaxing vibe that perfectly complements the lyrics.
The lyrics themselves, of course, are the real point of contention here. A rap act, even a nontraditional one, will stand or fall based on the quality of the words they write. The Flobots' “act”, as it were, is to combine bits of clever wordplay and rhythm with passionate political commentary – and it's clear they feel very strongly about what they write. This ends with some mixed results, but overall the album hits the lyrical mark: it's clever and biting, and a powerful statement of proudly liberal political standings. In some ways, though, it's this passion and faith that drag the band down. Their enthusiasm is a necessary part of what they do, but at times, it feels a bit overdone. In general, it seems the Flobots inhabit a world we want to live in – where there are good guys and bad guys, where problems have clear solutions, where if we just got the Republicans out of power and helped at a homeless shelter, everything would be alright in the end. It's a nice dream, but it's a dream, and we all know it. The world is not as black and white as we wish it was, and the album seems to go out of its way to avoid that central truth, if only because it is a great political diatribe, and that's what a diatribe must do.
I've been very negative here, so it begs the question: why say Fight With Toolsholds up well under scrutiny? It's because despite all this, it honestly does. Sometimes – often – what you have on this album is exactly what you need to get you through the day. The music and the lyrics both are inspiring, even if you find yourself thinking “that will never work.” The point is that you do, in fact, want it to work, and that's enough to make hearing the album a sentimental and powerful experience. My challenge for Flobots: write a few personal songs. Not tons, but a few. Songs that aren't about our political system, and why it's fucked up. Songs that aren't about why nobody seems to give a damn about the war and Katrina. Maybe something really, really introspective, or (and I can't believe I'm saying this) a love song or two. Or even just a political statement that recognizes some of the inherent ambiguity in the world. I love this band. I want to see them succeed. But I also want to hear them say something I can really believe.