Red Hot Chili Peppers

Album: I’m With You

What do Hillel Slovak, Jack Sherman, John Frusciante and Dave Navarro have in common?  They all recorded albums as the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  You can now add multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer to that list, as he has joined drummer Chad Smith and founding members vocalist Anthony Kiedis and Australian born bassist Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary for the band’s tenth studio album I’m With You.  Klinghoffer played keyboards and synthesiser on the band’s 2007 Australian tour and has extensive experience recording and performing live with artists including Beck, P.J. Harvey, Gnarls Barkley, and the RHCP’s previous guitarist Frusciante.  As with the band’s previous five albums, they again teamed up with veteran producer Rick Rubin for the follow up to the 2006 double album Stadium Arcadium.

The personnel change has significantly altered the band’s sound as, unlike By the Way and Stadium Arcadium, but like One Hot Minute, this album is heavier and more about rhythm than melody.  While Klinghoffer often provides the minimalist funk guitar that Frusciante made a cliché, he also supplies various synthesiser noodlings, such as the left channel beeps and boops on Ethiopia and the 1980s sounding synthesiser handclaps during the chorus of Look Around (the album’s stand out track).  These synthesiser treatments, including the manipulated drum sounds on the mediocre first single The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie, gives many songs a fun semi-retro vibe (at one point Kiedis even sings “I want to rock you like the eighties”); which recalls the band’s third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.

The album gets off to a great start with Monarchy of Roses, which initially recalls early Soundgarden before it leaps into a chorus built on Flea’s Giorgio Moroder-like disco bass line.  At around the midpoint, Klinghoffer’s guitar sounds surprisingly like a Dave Navarro lick from One Hot Minute or a Jane’s Addiction album, before the song ends in a crescendo of fills and cymbal crashes.  Factory of Faith follows, which combines Flea seemingly emulating a sequencer, with an appropriately cheesy drumbeat that sounds like 1980s new wave via synth-pop (a friend observes that the verses could be from a Gorillaz track).  The lyrics are about Kiedis’ advertising his new-found capacity for commitment after years of screwing around. This is a theme he often sings about as a theory, Warm Tape and Hard to Concentrate come to mind, but he is yet to implement in practice.

The band’s influences and inspirations have always been many and varied, which on this album is most obvious on the song Ethiopia.  Indigenous cultures have inspired the band before on songs like Walkabout (inspired by Australian Aboriginal cultures) and American Ghost Dance (about the plight of Native American Indians).  Before recording the album, Flea and Klinghoffer went on a sojourn to Africa, which is expressed in Ethiopia as a hypnotic bass line and syncopated drumming.  Arguably, Klinghoffer’s guitar solo is lacking; where Frusciante would’ve shredded, Klinghoffer just repeats the same chord over and over, but the song is redeemed by its great groove and the way Kiedis’ vocals slip and slide around the beat.

The first genuine let down of the album is Annie Wants a Baby.  The song features some of Klinghoffer’s best guitar work, but it shows the weaknesses in Kiedis’ vocals (and Ace of Base wrote a far better song about the same issue in the early 1990s).  Look Around, more than makes up for it, as it is the kind of RHCP jam with a chorus that makes even uncoordinated guys think they can dance.  The song seems to be about celebrating life, which is a difficult idea to make sound boring.  Kiedis raps half of the verses, before the anthemic choruses with Flea bopping along as if he is channelling Bernard Edwards from Chic.  The song demonstrates that Kiedis’ lyrics are at their best when they have a free associative quality where words are chosen for their sounds as much as their meanings.  After twenty eight years, we know that Kiedis’ themes are love, sex, life, and death, in roughly the same proportions; experience has taught him to avoid overcomplicating things with too many words.

These themes are also evoked by the album’s cover art that features a fly sitting on a drug capsule.  The image was allegedly designed by Damien Hirst, who is famous for ‘art works’ that include sharks in containers full of formaldehyde and a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds that can be bought for a lazy $50 million.  Death of a Martian (Flea’s tribute to his dog), Transcending (Flea and Anthony’s tribute to River Phoenix) and My Lovely Man (Kiedis’ tribute to the band’s first guitarist Hillel Slovak), demonstrate that songs about a death have become a standard feature of past RHCP albums.  Brendan’s Death Song, about punk club owner and band promoter Brendan Mullen who gave the band some of its earliest gigs in 1983, continues this trend.  The chorus features the refrain “And when the drummer drums… He’s going to play my song…To carry me along…” which allows Smith to conclude the track with a hyperactive series of fills that is as heavy as anything since the end of One Big Mob.  While the previous tribute songs have been solemn or angry, this track has a celebratory tone (“The nights are long, but the years are short when you’re alive” is one of Kiedis’ best lines on the album) which avoids harshly breaking with the happier tone of the rest of the disc.

The album’s best love song is Did I Let You Know.  It is features an interesting beat that anyone who has been to a Greek wedding would’ve heard before; except this band knows not to ruin it by adding the perpetually annoying sound of dueling bouzoukis.  Kiedis’ vocals are strained at times, but Klinghoffer provides great backing by ending the choruses.  At least on this album Kiedis’ vocals aren’t burdened by Auto-Tune glitches that afflicted By the Way.  The heaviest rock out song is Goodbye Hooray, which comes careering at the listener thanks to the wall of sound production style.  This time Flea adds a punk bass part (including the album’s best solo) that seems to have been treated with an envelope filter and / or more synthesiser manipulation from Klinghoffer.  The bridge is spaced out psychedelia with Klinghoffer layering angelic backing vocals of made up words; which he also did to great effect on Ataxia’s album Automatic Writing.  This respite is short lived before the song returns to the slamming chorus for a final onslaught with Smith closing the song with a violent assault on the ride, hi-hat, toms, crashes and perhaps splashes, but not necessarily in that order.

While the final third of the album is its weakest part, it retains some interest.  A highlight is Happiness Loves Company, which has second single written all over it.  It is a jaunty ditty that people should sing together in pubs instead of watching football.  The marching beat of the chorus and wacky right channel xylophone part, gives way to a singsong chorus that is well designed for radio play.  The best track in the last third is Even You Brutus? which starts as a long lost track from Slash era Guns n’ Roses, before shifting to Kiedis spitting rhymes over Smith’s heavy back beat, as Flea adds a honky tonk inspired piano part.  It is here that the hip-hop influence on the band at its clearest, because the beat could’ve been laid down using a Roland 808 on a late ‘80s gangster rap album.  It is so hip-hop that Jay-Z should cover this track live at Glastonbury if he is ever invited back.

The mixing and mastering of the album is the typical hyper-compressed ‘verses as loud as choruses’ nonsense that has been the norm for rock albums released over the last decade.  This works to the detriment of the backing vocals and layers of guitar, which are frequently drowned out by the bass and drums.  The best that can be said is that one can’t criticise this particular band for unoriginality as they were the pioneers of this trend with Californication (which was one of the loudest CDs released in the 1990s).  While Frusciante insisted that Stadium Arcadium be recorded and mixed to analogue tape with no added mastering compression on the vinyl version, since he has quit, it is doubtful that the vinyl version of I’m With You will offer better sound quality than the download.  It is unlikely that the original vinyl and CD of Blood Sugar Sex Magik will be challenged as the best sounding RHCP releases.

In late 1982, the band Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem formed as a joke.  A year later, they renamed themselves the Red Hot Chili Peppers and after some personnel changes, recorded their first (self-titled) album.  Over the last twenty-eight years and ten albums, their line-up has undergone almost constant changes, but they have become superstars of popular music.  If there is a formula for this band it is that they have always readily adapted different styles, inspirations and influences into an easily accessible form (on this album alone Kiedis name checks Jan and Dean, Stevie Wonder and John Coltrane).  If you don’t think this band has progressed at all, just compare the 1 minute 17 second punk workout Police Helicopter from their first album with the romantic ode Police Station from this latest offering.  While I’m With You doesn’t present any major surprises and it probably won’t be remembered as one of the band’s best albums, it is another worthy addition to their body of work (if I was a film scholar I would write “oeuvre”).  Some people take the Nick Cave approach, and question why this band has become so successful, but as Kiedis wrote twenty years ago: “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”  With that in mind, I give this album 3.5 out of 5.

Track Listing: Monarchy of Roses, Factory of Faith, Brendan’s Death Song, Ethiopia, Annie Wants A Baby, Look Around, The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie, Did I Let You Know, Goodbye Hooray, Happiness Loves Company, Police Station, Even You Brutus?, Meet Me at the Corner, Dance, Dance, Dance.

Simon Howson

 

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