Well, ain’t that something. Those wacky young Chili Peppers have finally gone and made something of themselves. Oh sure, they’ve been a few places, seen a few things in their time. They’ve even written some mighty fine music. But with the release of I’m With You (2011), they’ve proved that, underneath all the tattoos and incomprehensible, quasi-spiritual California-isms, they’ve got some real character. It’s a good thing too; things were looking grim there for a while, artistically speaking. The popularity juggernaut that was 2006’s Stadium Arcadium may have scored the boys a bundle of successful singles and awards, but it really represented a low point for the band. Once you got past the likes of ‘Dani California’ and ‘Snow (Hey Oh)’ you were faced with a disgustingly bloated (28 songs over 2 hours) double album where a bland and repetitive production made all the tracks sound boring, regardless of whether they were any good. Combined with the departure of (kinda) long time guitarist John Frusciante, the future of the Chili Peppers was looking uncertain. But then, this is the band that can’t stay still, for better or worse. From their early (criminally ignored) days in the ‘80s as purveyors of so-goofy-its-hardcore funk rock they’ve progressed steadily through near-metal nihilism, Beach-Boys-on-downers, and Stadium Arcadium’s bland-o-rock. Though it is not without the musical and lyrical tics that will always make the Chili Peppers good for a cringe or two, I’m With You reminds us that this is one band that is not afraid of the future.

For the first minute or so of I’m With You, things could go anywhere. We hear the squeal of guitars, and aimless rumbling drums, and then a heavily distorted vocal from Anthony Kieidis as ‘Monarchy Of Roses’ slowly kicks into gear. Just when we think we’ve got the song pegged – a fiercely distorted and dissonant grinder as might have been found on the unfairly panned One Hot Minute (1995) – suddenly we hit the chorus, all glistening guitars, nimbly popping bass and almost-disco drums surrounding a melody that you wouldn’t believe the Chili Peppers were capable of. Though sometimes residing in songs that don’t deserve them, this album is full of great choruses – particularly on ‘Brendan’s Death Song’ and ‘Ethiopia’ – packed with catchy, yet inventive, vocal melodies that, although strong in and of themselves, truly catch fire when combined with the distinctive, breathy backing vocals of new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. Klinghoffer doesn’t just bring vocal talent to the group, his efforts on guitar are one of the most crucial, yet subtle, elements of the album’s appeal. His sound is fairly similar to Frusciante’s but far more varied texturally, and far more willing to step back in the mix. The lack of ‘guitar hero’ moments – which seemed to make up the vast majority of Stadium Arcadium, to its detriment – makes it difficult to point out key Klinghoffer contributions, though the angular funk riffs of ‘Factory Of Faith’ and ‘Ethiopia’, and the brittle, soaring leads of ‘The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie’ do stand out. The band itself is really the focus of this album, and for the first time in years the two other members, Flea on bass and Chad Smith on drums, feel just as integral to the album as their bandmates, particularly on the widescreen funk of ‘Ethiopia’ and the remarkably nimble ‘Did I Let You Know.’

 

‘The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie’ , I’m With You’s first single, is by no means the album’s best track – but then singles so very rarely are

The album is not flawless however, and when it falls down it does so in essentially the same ways as every Chilli Peppers album following the inimitable Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991). Anthony Kiedis stills has the same vocal tics, still raps like a white boy from the 80s, and has a remarkable ability to be out of tune at exactly the wrong moment. It must be said however that, in an age of Autotune, Kiedis’ voice is refreshingly unvarnished, indeed his lead vocal is not reliant on double tracking (think Coldplay) or a thick cloak of reverb (think My Morning Jacket), and to the band’s credit, this is a common thread in albums by the post ‘80s Peppers. These albums have also shared the flaw that is arguably the one that consigns I’m With You to being a Good album rather than a Great one; excessive length due to an inability to edit. With fourteen songs coming in at just under an hour, this album is, while a standard length for the digital era, just too long. Though yes, the album is a lot tighter than Stadium Arcadium, or even the endurance-testing By The Way (2002), it could be vastly improved simply by the removal of a block of four songs in the second half; ‘Goodbye Hooray’, ‘Happiness Loves Company’, ‘Police Station’ and ‘Even You Brutus?’. Though these tracks all have strong points, particularly the (occasionally) interesting use of piano and several strong choruses, they just aren’t great; they feel too leaden, too Stadium Arcadium. Some might say ‘we’re all funky young digital consumers here, why don’t we just get iTunes to skip those songs, or rearrange the songs into our own playlist?’ Well, yeah we could, but of the many classic albums of yesteryear, how many do you think would have been as successful, and effective, if the creators had had the technology to throw every recorded song on the album and say ‘whatever, we’ll let the listeners sort it out’?. As long as songs are sold under a title and put in order, the album will still be an art form, and the advent of digital technology should not mean that the producers of an album outsource to the listener a job that they should have done themselves.

But don’t let that bring you down; remember, this is a positive review. The kind of faults mentioned above are not exclusive to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and in fact this album marks the beginning of what will hopefully be a continued improvement in a distinctly Chili Peppers problems: the lyrics situation. Basically ever since Californication (1999), Anthony Kiedis’ lyrics have made pretty much no sense. Sure, in a fair amount of songs you could take a reasonable guess at what the general vibe was, but it was the kind of stuff that you have to appreciate at some metaphorical level, or as pure wordplay, and it wasn’t that good at either. We were treated to songs like ‘Get On Top’, which proclaimed ‘Speedballer, Rhodes scholar / Bottom bitch and a bottom dollar / Come with me ‘cause I’m a free faller / You hoot but I holler’, and ‘Can’t Stop’ which, while certainly fun to listen to, had lyrics that were ninety percent gibberish, and not the Dylanesque type that at least sounds profound on first listen. But there are a lot of good bands with bad lyrics, and this wouldn’t have been a problem if it weren’t for the fact that Anthony Kiedis is actually capable of very fine, if workmanlike, lyrics that can convey a message with occasionally crafty wordplay, especially seen on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Where I’m With You is heartening is in its glimpses of a new found directness, with Kiedis making simple statements that, while certainly not Shakespeare, are at least comprehensible and relatable, and often bring the more ridiculous lyrics some kind of vague meaning. The two standouts in this regard are ‘Brendan’s Death Song’, with its repeated refrain of ‘like I said / you know I’m almost dead / you know I’m almost gone’ and ‘Ethiopia’, where the chorus sees new father Kiedis singing ‘tell my boy I love him so / tell him so he knows’. So yeah, they’re nothing revelatory, especially written down, but hearing them sung by the guy who wrote ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’ while the band kicks it up a notch was enough to touch even the most blackened and twisted depths of a crusty young critic’s heart.

All up? A good listen, at certain points a fantastic listen that is emotionally affecting in a way that the Chili Peppers haven’t been since One Hot Minute (no seriously, everyone was wrong about that one). The band sounds engaged and engaging, mining a fresh sonic vein with the help of a new guitarist that sounds a little bit familiar, a little bit different. It’s a new lease on life from a band that was looking for a while like the walking dead. Let’s hope there’s more, and better, to come.

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