Flobots singer Stephen Brackett — better known by his stage name Brer Rabbit — doesn't want to sound dismissive when he talks about 2010's Survival Story, the Denver rock/hip-hop group's second and final album for Universal Republic Records. But after leaving the majors and returning to the band's origins, Brackett sees the forthcoming The Circle in the Square as the true follow-up to Fight With Tools and its Top 40 hit "Handlebars."
In retrospect, Survival Story was a textbook case of the sophomore curse. The band, whose current lineup had been together since 2005, originally self-released its Fight With Tools album in 2007. But then Denver's KTCL 93.3 held a contest in which listeners chose "Handlebars" as their favorite song by a local artist. The station, in turn, put "Handlebars" in heavy rotation, drawing the attention of Universal Republic. With major label backing, the reissued album went on to move more than a quarter million copies.
While Brackett said Universal didn't interfere with the politically inclined band's creative process, success still brought with it a whole new set of expectations.
"It changes the picture when you have somebody else investing and paying for studio time," says Brackett, who shares emcee/vocal duties with co-frontman Jonny 5. "It changes it when you know you're turning in your stuff for somebody else to evaluate. It changes it when you have a producer in there, and they're kind of setting the tone for how things are — or are not. We didn't have the experience to let that not pull us one way or the other."
Survival Story failed to connect with radio and fans the way its predecessor had, and the band parted ways with Universal Republic. The upside is that being independent allowed the two frontman — along with viola player/singer Mackenzie Gault, bassist Jesse Walker and drummer Kenny Ortiz — to reconnect with their original creative impulses.
In fact, The Circle in the Square stands as the Flobots' most accomplished to date, with lots of energy, melodic hooks and creative twists. The title song's hip-hop vocal meets head-on with a slamming beat and an edgy rock melody largely created by Gault's viola. On "Run (Run Run Run)," the rhythm goes more reggae, while the spoken vocals are surrounded by a melody with a distinct Middle Eastern feel. "One Last Show" retains a bit of the Middle Eastern motif, but adds some sharp funk to the equation.
And yes, the lyrics on "The Circle in the Square" are highly topical, but this time filtered more through personal experiences, including a trip to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank that happened to coincide with the Arab Spring uprising.
"One of the criticisms we received with Fight With Tools is that it seemed like it was activism and call to action, as if it was read from the headlines," Brackett says. "So it was like, OK, fair, I'll take that. This one, it's not the case."
For Brackett and his bandmates, the new album has been a revitalizing experience. "Each time I came into the studio, I was honestly blown away by the stuff the other band members had done," he says. "We can honestly say we did everything we wanted to on this album."