Review Summary: Same same but different.9 of 9 thought this review was well written
Following the release and subsequent world tour of their 2006 double album Stadium Arcadium
, the burnt out Red Hot Chili Peppers agreed on a two year hiatus to pursue other activities and recharge the batteries before making any decisions regarding the future of the band. For frontman Anthony Kiedis, this meant becoming a father for the first time. Bassist Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary, aside from playing with Thom Yorke in his Atoms for Peace project, also attended university to study music theory. Drummer Chad Smith continued recording and touring with his side projects Chickenfoot and Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats. Guitarist John Frusciante returned to working on his solo material, culminating in the release of his experimental/psychedelic masterpiece The Empyrean
in early 2009. When it came time to regroup, Frusciante informed his bandmates that his musical interests had taken him in another direction and that he would be quitting the band for the second and final time to continue working on other projects. This raised a dilemma - it is no accident that the band’s success has risen and fallen with Frusciante’s comings and goings, and for an ageing group (Kiedis, Flea and Smith are all fast approaching 50) it could well have spelled the end. The band’s last album without Frusciante was 1995’s One Hot Minute
, featuring Jane’s Addiction axeman Dave Navarro. While it was not the disaster some make it out to be, it was a definite decline from 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik
. Navarro was and is a very talented guitarist, but he could not match the almost telepathic combination of Frusciante and Flea. After all, replacing one of the most gifted guitarists of our generation is no mean feat - so where to go from here? Enter the next man through the revolving door of Chili Pepper guitarists - Josh Klinghoffer.
Multi-instrumentalist Klinghoffer who, compared to his new bandmates, is a spring chicken at 31, has been a part of numerous musical projects over the past decade. Starting out his career as a guitarist for Bob Forrest in The Bicycle Thief, he then moved on to recording and touring with various artists including Beck, PJ Harvey, Gnarls Barkley and Warpaint. He has also featured prominently on many of Frusciante’s solo albums, contributing drums, synthesisers, guitars and backing vocals. Most recently he was fronting his own experimental rock band Dot Hacker, made up of fellow Gnarls Barkley touring members. Additionally, he toured with the Chili Peppers as a backup guitarist in 2007. He’s certainly been around the block a few times, but no doubt the question on many people’s lips will be “is he as good as Frusciante?”. Well, quite frankly no - he is not. But he doesn’t even try to be. Attempting to replicate his predecessor’s playing would have been folly, and what Klinghoffer brings to the table is something different entirely, something new and fresh, and his bandmates sound all the better for it.
“We’re rolling everybody, it starts with bass” says Flea at the beginning of fourth track 'Ethiopia', before launching into a bassline that immediately gets heads nodding and feet tapping. This is a prevalent theme for most of the album. In stark contrast to the in-your-face riffs and soloing of Stadium Arcadium
, Klinghoffer is happy to sit back and let Flea take lead on the bass. Flea takes this opportunity by the scruff of the neck and lays down some of his best and most inventive basslines in years. Don’t get me wrong though, Klinghoffer is no slouch with the guitar, and he provides effective and solid rhythm playing throughout. When it comes to soloing he eschews the 1000-note-per-second philosophy that Frusciante adopted on Stadium
in favour of various psychedelic effects and textures. His style is certainly unique and can take a few listens to grow on you, but ultimately he gels extremely well with Flea and Smith. Their combined sound, while somewhat different, is Chili Peppers through and through, and people who have never liked the band certainly won’t be changing their minds now.
Catchy upbeat tracks make up the bulk of the first half. Album opener 'Monarchy of Roses' fuses heavy, Black Sabbath style riffs with a straight up disco chorus, while 'Factory of Faith', 'Ethiopia' and 'Look Around' are funky bass-driven tracks with typical Chili Pepper radio-friendly choruses. Lead single 'The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie', while initially disappointing, makes a lot more sense in the context of the album. The Latin-tinged 'Did I Let You Know' is a highlight, with its laidback groove and trumpet solo, and Klinghoffer singing beautiful backup vocals in the chorus. Klinghoffer has a very unique singing voice which many will at first mistake for that of a female, and he puts it to good use providing solid backup for Kiedis on most tracks and even taking lead in passages of the melancholic 'Meet Me at the Corner'.
'Brendan’s Death Song' is the standout on the first half of the album, reportedly written on the first day of rehearsals for I’m with You
– when Kiedis had informed the band of the death of long-time friend and nightclub owner Brendan Mullen. It is a touching tribute to Mullen, who had been influential in giving the band their start by booking their first shows in 1983. Beginning with a gentle acoustic guitar riff and gradually building to a thundering cathartic climax, it features Kiedis’ best performance on the album, both vocally and lyrically, along with some explosive drumming from Smith. Smith in particular has stepped up his game on I’m with You
, delivering his best performance since One Hot Minute
. While always an energetic live performer, his beats on recent Chili Pepper albums had started to become a tad stale and unimaginative, and his extra effort here is certainly appreciated.
The second half of the album kicks off with a bang – 'Goodbye Hooray' is the most frantic track on the album. Smith and Klinghoffer go nuts on their instruments, Kiedis hollers one of the best choruses on the album and Flea contributes a blistering bass solo. Following the raw energy of 'Goodbye Hooray', things slow down considerably to make way for several slower, piano-led tracks. There are a few good songs here – 'Police Station', 'Even You Brutus?' and 'Meet Me at the Corner' in particular. 'Even You Brutus?' is somewhat new territory for the band, with hip-hop style piano and shouted verses which at first listen can be a tad off-putting. It is a definite grower, however, with Klinghoffer putting his wah wah pedal to good use and holding the verses together before the uplifting chorus. Album closer 'Dance, Dance, Dance' is bland, inoffensive and ultimately forgettable. However, it is the bouncy piano number 'Happiness Loves Company' that takes the cake for worst song on the album, with particularly grating nasally vocals and dull lyrics from Anthony Kiedis.
As a frontman, Kiedis has always divided opinion, and many listeners merely tolerate him to enjoy the level of musicianship on offer from the other members. He has long been the weak link that stopped people taking the band seriously and his performance on I’m with You
is no different. Admittedly, he has been phoning in the majority of his lyrics since 2002’s By the Way
- so perhaps I may be expecting too much - but barring a handful of songs his performance is nothing short of insipid. He seems content with simply rhyming random phrases together and there are far too many of his trademark cringe-worthy lines. It would appear that his well of inspiration ran dry years ago. That combined with his tendency to sing long, drawling, nasal notes means that his overall performance comes close to ruining many of the songs. My main complaint with this album - there are far too many meaningless songs that just aren’t saying anything
Overall, Josh Klinghoffer does a fine job of patching the John Frusciante shaped hole in the Peppers’ line-up with a minimum of fuss. He really is a breath of fresh air and brings a whole new dynamic to their sound. While Flea and Smith have always been incredibly skilled, on I’m with You
they sound reinvigorated and are playing better than ever. That’s three from three so far, but it brings us again to Anthony Kiedis. He really is the fatal flaw on this album that holds it back from being great. What makes it more disappointing is Rick Rubin’s awful production which pushes his vocals right to the front of the mix and drowns out a lot of the interesting instrumentation behind it, especially Klinghoffer's guitar. This aside, it does feel like a rebirth and a new start for the Peppers, and proves that there is life in the old dog yet. I will be eagerly waiting to see what this new line-up can do on their next album. Let’s just hope that in the meantime their frontman will find something new to write about.