2006 / Music

Review: Chili Peppers’ Double LP Is More Natural, But Lacks Spiciness

L.A. Rock Legends Return After 4-Year Absence

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

In the public eye, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are synonymous with their founding members and hams-in-chief, singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea.

Hyperactive, loony and annoyingly glib, the pair rarely miss an opportunity to debase themselves in public — all for a laugh and to reinforce their luster as performers.

But away from the spotlights and cameras, it is the band’s eccentric guitarist John Frusciante who calls the musical shots. What the Chili Peppers are today, they owe to Frusciante. (Read this old article on Slate.com for some interesting opinions about Frusciante.)

Since he joined the band in the late ’80s, he has been the Los Angeles-based group’s creative rudder and the star that has guided them. In a band seemingly defined by its love of goofy funk cheesiness and onstage corniness, he’s been the only one to show any taste. First, he elevated them above the rest of the funk-metal crowd on modern-day classics like “Mother’s Milk” and “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” by trying out varied musical shadings. In the late ’90s, he returned from a several-years-long heroin binge to stir them toward pop and a commercial comeback just when their future seemed to be darkening.

On the group’s brand-new double album, “Stadium Arcadium,” Frusciante is thoroughly integrating the band’s basic musical strengths and sonic proclivities with the pop song structures that he’s had them messing with on their last two discs. This record is a more natural product of the band than its predecessors, “By The Way” and “Californication.”

While “Californication” had some of the group’s strongest songs in years and solidified their place on the arena circuit, Frusciante’s return galvanized them to write songs in opposition to their norms. This was accomplished by mainly keeping their musical unbridled-ness firmly underleash. With few exceptions, “By The Way,” took this even further and had the band selling its soul to write the perfect pop song as Frusciante had them toying with blissed-out vocal harmonies and New Wave guitar effects.

The 28 songs on “Stadium Arcadium” — coming in at just short of two hours in total — see Frusciante, Flea and drummer Chad Smith approach the new tunes with more elasticity, freely breaking from the verse-chorus-verse pattern. This is a genuine joy, as few play together as well or as interestingly as Frusciante and Flea. Alternating between rock, moodier ballads and even some long-out-of-action funk, the duo and Smith are adaptable and forceful at the same time. Although the energy level on most of the songs is kept in a blah, midtempo pace, those rare moments of aggression offer flashes of the old Chili Peppers when the had some spicy-iness to their sound.

Instead of musical fury, almost all the songs feature well-polished choruses and hooks, but the band’s touchstone adolescent lyrics, dwelling on sex and/or idealized beauties, and the buffoonery are mercifully kept to a minimum.

Although it too is downplayed, Frusciante’s hunger for eclecticism gets its fix through his solos. On “Strip My Mind,” he creates a double-tracked, King Crimson-style showpiece. During the futuristic funk of “Tell Me Baby,” he replays Hendrix. He shreds like an ’80s hair-metal gunslinger on “Turn It Again” and pretends to be a New Wave keyboard player on “Descretation.”

Frusciante’s playing is is slinky and funky for the record’s first single, “Dani California.” Musically laid back, the track’s energy level intensifies for the sweeping chorus. Even Kiedis, who’s rapping his typically dead weight on any Peppers’ song, should get credit for some decent rhyming here (he paired “hippie” with “Mississippi.”)

There are a number of surprises here. The band sounds sweet on the pretty “Hard To Concentrate.” Frusciante plays a high-pitched, descending guitar figure that compliments Kiedis’ tender ode to his latest flame. “Hump de Bump” is a pedestrian funk ditty, but is made more interesting by some tinny horn blasts. The album’s title track, rife with backing vocals, “natives are restless” drumming and Frusciante/Flea interplay is every bit the epic that “Californication” or “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” are.

There’s little delicacy in “21st Century,” which consists of a macho version of a disco bassline and has little guitar until a searing solo peels out. In contrast, “If” is filled with Frusciante’s multi-faceted fretwork. A meditative track, it consists of Kiedis crooning over a finger-style guitar pattern bolstered by whispery, slide guitar accents.

There are several songs that could have been cut here (the band reportedly contemplated releasing three albums), the record’s biggest problem is just its sheer size. Few but the most dedicated fan could make it all the way through without wanting to sucker punch Kiedis. The smartest listeners will copy the album and burn their own personal copy of the greatest (and only) Chili Pepper EP.

Again, the fact that 23 years into their career, the Chili Peppers are in a position to record even a handful of good songs can be credited to Frusciante’s maturation as a songwriter and artist. Although his compatriots seem stunted musically, they are wise enough to recognize the Frusciante can take them both to places they’ve never been before musically or reenergize what’s been tired out.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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