Red Hot Chili Peppers I’m With You *** Warner Bros
Minus their star guitarist, the Chilis are a little bit mild. By John Lewis
EVEN IN THE tardy world of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for whom several
years between albums is nothing remarkable, the five-and-a-half year gap that
has preceded I’m With You is considerable. Especially when their last
album, the global chart-topping Stadium Arcadium, was such a display of
fecundity-– two CDs, 28 tracks, nearly all of them pretty good – that went on to
sell nearly eight million copies worldwide.
In the interim, they have been busy. Front man Anthony Kiedis has, apparently, been working on an HBO series based on his Rabelaisian memoir Scar Tissue. Drummer Chad Smith has formed a metal supergroup, Chickenfoot, with Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani and an instrumental jazz-rock band, Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats. Bassist Flea went to Nigeria with Damon Albarn’s African Express, toured with Thorn Yorke’s Atoms For Peace, and went to a conservatoire to study music theory, composition and jazz trumpet.
More pertinently, however, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante-a key member for over twenty years-has left the band for the second time. Listening to a playback of this new album, one can definitely hear a Frusciante-shaped hole in the proceedings, prompting us to consider exactly what qualities he brought to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their first three albums, all recorded without him tended to compromise riff-based, single-chord funk jams. It was Frusciante’s arrival, on 1989’s Mother’s Milk, that changed all that. Instead of being a facsimile funk-rock band – a blend of Funkadelic,
Defunkt and Gang Of Four-they slowly morphed into a rock band who held their funk chops in reserve and began to explore more properly structured songs.
The last time Frusciante quit, before 1995?s One Hot Minute, they enlisted Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, who turned them into a rather maudlin metal act. This time they’ve gone with journeyman guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. He’s more than a decade younger than the other Chili Peppers and boasts a highly respectable CV- stints with PJ Harvey, Gnarls Barkley, Beck and the Butthole Surfers, and even a stint playing as Frusciante’s sideman on a string of solo records. But Klinghoffer seems to lack the spiky inventiveness of his old
mentor. On several tracks he sounds bereft of ideas, just waiting for the breakdown of each song to play a ponderous-sounding chord tempered with some wobbly effect, in the style of Andy Summers from The Police. The lead single “The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” has a solo so amateurish it sounds like it’s been pasted in as a joke by the studio’s tea boy.
In places, I’m With You sounds like a parody of the Chili Peppers. “Ethiopia”, a plodding by-numbers funk-rock jam, is topped by some rambling Anthony Kiedis doggerel (“Tell my boy I love him so/Tell him so he knows/Lost in Ethiopia/ washed out on that road”), “Look Around” is another schematic funk workout that starts with some ill-advised Kiedis rapping (“Hustle me bitch and you’d best beware/Don’t try and tap your round peg
into my square”) and doesn’t get much better. “Factory Of Faith” sounds like an end-of-the-pier Franz Ferdinand tribute act.
And yet, and yet, amid this poor material, the Chili Peppers still manage to deliver a handful of very, very good songs. The more interesting of these largely jettison Klinghoffer’s guitar and foreground the piano, apparently written by Flea and played by long time Chilis collaborator Greg Kurstin. “Even You Brutus?” starts with a “Mr Blue Sky” four-to-the-bar piano stomp that quickly mutates into a compelling hip hop-tinged groove. “Happiness Loves Company” is a jangly, piano-led, ‘70s-style number in a similar lyrical vein to “Under The Bridge”. And “Police Station” is a lovelorn piano ballad which appears to be about a fallen Hollywood idol who now appears to spend her entire life in and out of police custody. It will doubtless be used to soundtrack some low-budget TV cut-and-clip documentary about Lindsay Lohan in the near future.
The other standout tracks are similarly atypical of the band. “Did I Let You Know” is a furious Afrobeat collage, with off-kilter drumming, hi-life guitar, some timbales and a cracking trumpet solo. It also-be warned-has Kiedis rhyming “freaky” with Mozambiquey.”
“Brendan s Death Song” is an acoustic ballad which pays tribute to Brendan Mullen, the LA nightclub owner who gave the band their first break: “Like I said, you know/ I’m almost dead/I’m almost gone/When the boatman comes to ferry me away/to where we all belong” Both suggests that, post-Frusciante, the Red Hot Chili Peppers could be due another radical change in direction. In all probability, though, we’ll be waiting another five years to find out where it all leads.