As far as songs go, few prove as challenging to sing as our national anthem.
It’s a technically demanding tune from first note to last, to be sure, beginning with a low bellow that quickly soars toward star-punching high notes, eventually swelling to a show-stopping crescendo that even the most seasoned performer can have trouble mastering.
Utah-based rockers Neon Trees spent a hot summer night setting fire to Tulsa’s legendary Cain’s Ballroom on June 19. Rounding out the aural palette were Smallpools, a lively L.A. powerhouse, and Nightmare and the Cat, a cadre of black-clad Brit/American alt-rockers. Neon Trees’ latest record, Pop Psychology, was the night’s flux capacitor, transporting all who were willing to a neon-soaked parallel universe.
For some of us, “I'm With You,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 10th studio
album, is a long-awaited and welcome project that very likely could
never have happened. To others, it didn’t need to happen, and is simply
more of the same from a group that should have hung things up 10 years
ago and spent their time preening courtside at L.A. Lakers games and
basking in their own fame.
And it almost didn't happen.
The band went on hiatus after its “Stadium Arcadium” tour wrapped up in 2007. Bassist Flea hit the books, studying music theory at the University of Southern California;, singer Anthony Kiedis was a new father; and drummer Chad Smith began playing with other bands. It looked like the Peppers might be done. When guitarist John Frusciante departed in 2009, the end was all but certain.
Over the past two years, there were rumblings of a comeback, and then the announcement of the addition of their previous touring guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer, who trained under the tutelage of Frusciante. With Klinghoffer on board, the band set to work on a new album in 2010 and brought in longtime producer Rick Rubin.
From a fan’s perspective, things looked promising for those not ashamed to say they have listened to the group since Kiedis dubbed himself Antoine the Swan, and was known to take the stage with a sock on his, well, private parts while singing about waving his magic wand and loving all the ladies to death.
The result of “I’m With You” is something Peppers loyalists will appreciate as it continues the direction the band took after the odd misstep of 1995’s “One Hot Minute.” It is much more “Californication” than “Blood Sugar Sex Magik,” but with a bit of 1989s “Mother’s Milk.” And while they have been accused in recent years of not breaking new ground, the Peppers are a band that should be applauded for consistency.
By the time most acts have been around for years and years, fans don’t want major departures — think the Rolling Stones doing disco or U2’s “Zooropa.” At this point in their careers, if the Peppers tried a Radiohead or Flaming Lips sound, it would surely sound forced and fall flat. Kiedis was born to rap over a strong, thumping bass lines, funky guitar and explosive drums, or croon over a subtle, mid-tempo beat.
In the old days, Kiedis used to rap and yell. As time has gone on, he has proven to be an increasingly good singer worthy of his stature, even if he sometimes stumbles in his word associations and conjures rhymes that sound as though they were made up on the spot.
With the long-running joke that the Peppers guitarists’ are like the drummer in “Spinal Tap,” this time they set out once again with a young gun who holds his own and channels his predecessors — including Hillel Slovak, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988 — but he is often too meek, only letting his voice come through in punchy accents.
On the first single, “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” the band produced a piece that could have found a home on their breakout album, “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” The song is enhanced by Klinghoffer’s bursts of guitar-on-helium riffs during the chorus, but little else that would let a listener know a new guitarist was on board. Klinghoffer is undoubtedly a gifted guitarist, but was perhaps too timid to turn pieces like “Brendan’s Death Song” and “Annie Wants a Baby” into “Under the Bridge”-caliber classics.
Unlike the oil-and-water pairing of the Peppers and Dave Navarro on “One Hot Minute,” Klinghoffer gels with the three longtime members, who are all nearing AARP eligibility. He spent his teen years learning the Peppers songs, his 20s playing and recording with Frusciante, then performing live with Kiedis and company, and now, in his early 30s, taking over for one of most successful acts in recent years.
The album gets off to a bit of a rough, noisy start; quite honestly, the opening bars sound like “Warped” from “One Hot Minute.” Hearing that might initially make a listener who was not a fan of that album think, “Here we go again,” but it soon morphs into a piece that could easily be a long-lost track from “Californication.” There is some funk, there is a little rap, and then there are mellow grooves like “Police Station” that are appealing, and sound a little like the band is tiptoeing into new territory.
“Look Around” had the potential to kick with the intensity of “Knock Me Down” from “Mother’s Milk,” but again, it feels like the group is restrained, and it soon begins to fall flat. “Did I Let You Know” has a great trumpet solo and a jazzy feel, but is lost when Kiedis oddly rhymes “cheeky” with “Mozambiquee?”
At times in the past, the band has benefitted from having Kiedis sit back and relax while they took it away and jammed on songs like “Pretty Little Ditty” on “Mother’s Milk,” and the last few minutes of “Sir Psycho Sexy” on “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” There is sadly none of that on “I’m with You.” As witnessed on recent albums, Kiedis’ vocals sometimes feel forced, as if he feels he needs to fill every verse with his voice, sometimes to the detriment of the song, where he should have let the music take over.
For those who loved everything up to “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” and hated everything thereafter, the new album is probably not going to satisfy. For those who came of age with “Californication” and enjoyed 2002’s “By the Way” and 2006’s chart-topping, although lackluster “Stadium Arcadium,” they will be in good company.
For those who want to hear more bass-slapping and songs of old like “Skinny Sweaty Man” and “Fight Like a Brave” from 1987’s “Uplift Mofo Party Plan,” but have grown up and stuck with the band, it’s like catching up with old friends who aren’t as fun as they used to be, but still hold onto their coolness into middle age, even if they need Just for Men to secure their youthful locks. Klinghoffer is like the young trophy wife, but one who isn’t just there to make the boys look good. And hopefully, if the guys stay together, he will bring the energy and intensity Frusciante came on board with when he joined as a teenager in the late 1980s.
While the band, and especially Kiedis, have been accused of being simply misogynistic clowns — and not without good reason at times — this is a group that didn’t have to cut another album. Their legacy was secured 20 years ago. This time around, however, Kiedis is a father, deep into middle age, and still has something to say, even though we sometimes have no idea what that is. Flea has become a respected musician, and Smith seems to be having a great time doing what he loves.
From early footage of the new lineup performing “Maggie” on a Venice, Calif., rooftop, it is clear that they can still rock. Klinghoffer exhibits much of Fruscainte’s introversion, but boy, can he play guitar.
“I’m with You” is not a masterpiece, but it’s also no ersatz Peppers album. No one phoned this in. This is the work of an older, wiser Kiedis and company, who still have something to say; they want to, in his words on “Maggie,” rock you like the ’80s. But one is left to ask if the Peppers of the ’80s would be fans of this album. The answer: probably not.—Kelley Chambers