If you’re like me, you spent the weekend holed up in a room with big speakers listening to the highly anticipated new LP from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (complete with John Frusciante back on guitar) Unlimited Love.
A few weeks ago my daughter was in town and we went over to see my parents. My father, a half a glass of wine in, decided to drop some family trivia. Each member of our nuclear family was born in a different state. While true, it’s not something I think about a lot. My father was actually born in Los Angeles. His parents, my grandparents, migrated from Kansas to California during the Great Depression like so many people did. It wasn’t quite as Grapes Of Wrath as it sounds. My grandfather had a job in a factory waiting for him. My grandparents were comfortable enough they not only had my dad but my uncle both in L.A. Eventually they returned to the Midwest but I always wonder what would have happened if they’d stayed out West. Who knows, I might have gone to high school with Anthony Kiedis, Flea and Hillel Slovak. I’m about the same age as those cats. Maybe, despite no evidence of musical ability, I’d be in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Although my low pain threshold has kept me away from tattoos… and I’m not brave enough to appear on stage in only one sock. Dare to dream.
New music from the Chili Peppers is always a treat. Maybe it’s because (as mentioned) I’m roughly the same age, it always feels like getting an email from an old friend when they drop new music. Admittedly I was late getting on their bandwagon. I am probably the only Chili Peppers fan who discovered the band through the one album they did with Dave Navarro, One Hot Minute. Critics felt the songs on that album were under developed but I love that record. “Warped” is just an amazing song. “My tendency for dependency is up ending me…” From there I went back to their seminal line-up and most famous LPs featuring John Frusciante – Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Mother’s Milk. Those albums were a tour de force of guitar funk. Flea is the greatest bassist of his generation. It was fun following Kiedis’ development as a vocalist. He started as a rapper now he’s a fabulous vocalist. I was hesitant to buy Californication when it came out. I remember listening to samples of it at the Barnes & Noble on the Plaza. I walked out of there with that album and it solidified my place on their bandwagon.
I was terribly bummed after Frusciante left a second time after Stadium Arcadium. I’d seen them on that tour and he played with an almost religious ecstasy on his face. Everyone except my parents loved Stadium Arcadium. I had people significantly older than me at work tell me they were listening to that album. You could argue they were the biggest band on the planet at that point. A friend of mine at the time said to me, “I can’t believe I’m more into the Chili Peppers LP than the new Pearl Jam. If you’d told me 10 years ago that would happen I’d have told you you were crazy.” While I was bummed they’d lost Frusciante after that album and tour I stayed on the bandwagon. I thought Josh Klinghoffer who replaced Frusciante was a significantly less talented lead guitarist but I was in no way anti Josh. I loved I’m Beside You. However, I was really unimpressed with The Getaway, despite the sensational first single, “Dark Necessities.” The wheels came off on the second half of that album… Having listened to it for the first time in a long while this weekend, I stand by my opinion.
As I said, with Frusciante returning to the fold after an amicable split with Klinghoffer (Chad Smith played with Josh on Eddie Vedder’s new LP and tour) anticipation has been running high for this album. Anticipation is a tricky thing. If it gets to excessive it can interfere with how you perceive an album. I expected the same kind of guitar masterwork we got on Stadium Arcadium. There are moments of Frusciante’s transcendent guitar work but I would describe this album as more “Flea forward” than their last LP together. This album has a lot of funky bass and that is not a bad thing. These guys remind me of my old college roommates. There were five us in a tiny apartment. Rent was like $60 a month. We were wild men in those old days. When we get together for reunions these days they’re always fun but nothing as crazy as the college years. Maybe that’s what happened on this record. Old pals got together not to recapture old glories but reaffirm their bond and vibe. This album is a very midtempo affair. That doesn’t necessarily bother me, but the Rock Chick was not pleased.
The album starts with the first single, the somber “Black Summer.” It may not be as glorious as “Dark Necessities” but it’s a great track. It’s very “Slow Cheetah.” The first third of this record is just sensational. It’s as varied and melodious as anything they’ve ever done. “Here Ever After” is an upbeat, funky ear worm of a song. It gets in your head and it stays there. “Aquatic Mouth Dance” has some great horns that distinguish it. I do love Flea on trumpet. It’s another funky rocker. “Not The One” is just a gorgeous ballad. I love the line “I don’t look like myself in photographs.” Beautiful song, beautifully sung. “Poster Child” is a funky “We Didn’t Start The Fire” trippy trip through history. The chorus is another “stick in your brain” kind of moment. “I will be your poster child…”
“The Great Apes” is really the first track that Frusciante’s guitar dominates. The sounds he gets out of a guitar are so distinct. There are certain guitarists who I hear and just know who it is. It’s as unique as a vocal. David Gilmour and even Clapton are like that for me. I’m realizing Frusciante is as distinct as those guys. “It’s Only Natural” continues the hot streak. While it’s mellower it’s got some cool guitar sound effects. “She’s A Lover” is another bass heavy, funky up beat track. It’s another song I like a whole lot. “These Are the Ways” is probably the biggest rock song on the album. Frusciante lets loose with some heavy riffs on that track.
It’s after that, starting with “Whatchu Thinkin'” and “Bastards of Light” that the album falls into that midtempo vibe and they never really get out of it. I like Rick Rubin and I think he’s the perfect producer for these guys but he lets them get a little monochromatic at times, like Picasso in his “Blue Period.” The Chili Peppers’ creative process is jam based – most of their songs come out of sessions where they get together and jam. That jam based process doesn’t really lend itself to editing. They probably could have cut a few songs and it would have helped the album. It’s an hour and thirteen minutes long. “Bastards of Light” is the only track I didn’t connect with, it turns into Kiedis singing through a megaphone. “White Braids & Pillow Chair” is a pretty ballad but it meanders as did my mind at that point in the album. Taken by themselves each of these songs are great but as a whole the album does seem very midtempo. There’s nothing wrong with mellow it’s just not what I’d expected.
Things get back on track toward the end of the album with the upbeat “One Way Traffic.” “Will you be my traffic jam?” It’s got a great sing along chorus. That’ll be a big one live. I really love the song “Let ‘Em Cry.” It may be my favorite on the album. “Veronica” has great lyrics. “The Heavy Wing” is probably, yes, the heaviest track on the album. Frusciante takes over the vocals on the back end of that song which is an unfortunate choice. “Tangelo” wraps things up much like “Roadtrippin'” did Californication, with a beautiful acoustic guitar driven track.
This is certainly one of the biggest albums of the year and I urge everybody to check it out. I can’t wait to see these guys live again. I want the Rock Chick to behold the majesty of John Frusciante live. They purportedly put together 50 songs when recording this album and there are rumors they might release a follow up in short order. I’m for all the Chili Peppers with Frusciante I can get!
Enjoy this laid back groove of an album. I know it made my weekend! Cheers!