Red Hot Chili Peppers: I’m With You

Written by September 13th, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Red Hot Chili Peppers
I’m With You
(Warner Bros.)
Rating: ★★½☆☆

The most essential album in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ large catalog isn’t Blood Sugar Sex Magik, their 1991 breakout that produced their biggest hit, “Under the Bridge.” Nor is it 2006’s best-selling Stadium Arcadium, which stretched their ambitions out to fill a double album. Instead, it’s 1999’s Californication, a modest creative and commercial success that struck the ideal balance between thumping party grooves and melancholy melodies. Heralding the return of guitarist John Frusciante and erasing the memory of the horrendous One Hot Minute, that album—and especially songs like “Scar Tissue” and “Otherside”—showed that the notorious party band could age into their forties without losing their sense of fun or their sense of dignity. If Blood Sugar made them stars, Californication made them lifers.

The Chili Peppers try to strike that same balance on their latest, I’m With You, which may turn out to be a minor installment in their canon but still accomplishes the impossible: Even as Keidis and co. are pushing 50, they still aren’t embarrassing themselves with their elementary raps, hedonistic funk, and tighty-whiteys. For the most part, they’ve dialed it back just enough to avoid coming off like old men trying to keep up with the kids, yet they still recall that band of L.A. punks that recorded “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” a quarter century ago. In fact, it’s when they dial it back too far that I’m With You suffers: “Be my wife, I think that probably we should mate,” Keidis sings on “Factory of Faith,” but it’s only a half-hearted seduction compared to the raunchy “Sir Psycho Sexy” come-ons of their prime.

More than the band’s surprising longevity, however, the real story of I’m With You is the addition of yet another guitar player. The Chili Peppers have gone through fretmen like Spinal Tap went through drummers, eight in total counting newbie Josh Klinghoffer. He’s played with Tricky, Gnarls Barkley, and PJ Harvey and has toured with the Chili Peppers in the past, yet he’s such a non-presence on these songs, which are so grounded in the rhythm section that the guitar often sounds like a late edition. His solos are short and largely nondescript, as if no one has any expectations that he’ll be around for very long. He certainly doesn’t have the personality of Frusciante, who added gravity to even Keidis’ most nonsensical lyrics.

Still, the Chili Peppers are trying to stretch their sound as tautly as possible, adding a disco bassline to opener “Monarchy of Roses” and a piano march to “Happiness Loves Company.” But for all the new bells and whistles, these songs live and die by Keidis’ lyrics, which range from forgettable to outrageous to seriously awful. First single “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” may represent a new nadir for the frontman: “Tick-tock/I want to rock you like the ’80s/Cock blocking isn’t allowed,” he half-raps. “Tug boat Sheila is into memorabilia/Who said three is a crowd?”

He can still craft a fine sharp hook, though, and the band—well, mainly Flea and drummer Chad Smith—can still wail when they need to. In that regard, “Brendan’s Death Song” may be the takeaway on I’m With You, opening with a modest acoustic guitar theme that gradually mushrooms into pummeling finale. That climax sounds wholly earned, as the band add solemn tension to Keidis’ life-and-death ponderings. It’s the album’s finest marriage of words and music, a genuinely poignant moment that suggests these guys still have a lot of life in them after all.

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