You’ve got to hand it to the Red Hot Chili Peppers: these guys have never stopped believing in their own bullshit. There’s really no other way to explain why these forever shirtless Angelenos are still making music in 2011. The group’s unshakable core of singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary have, by the bewitching power of the state of California, stayed true to their teenage vision of a cosmic funk-fueled brotherhood. Over the last 28 years, the band has overcome everything from death to Dave Navarro. They’ve been given their last rites more times than Dick Cheney and, like the former VP, they always come back more terrifying powerful.
But when guitarist John Frusciante walked away for the second and final time in 2009, the general consensus was that the Chili Peppers would hang up their tube socks for good. And really, why shouldn’t they? When Frusciante left for the first time focus on massive drug consumption and poor dental hygiene, the band foundered with the hopelessly mismatched Navarro in his place. It was only upon his miraculous return that the band finally evolved from misogynistic party boys to gentlemanly purveyors of finely crafted, heavily melodic rock ‘n’ roll.
Frusciante is a virtuoso, yet he’s also a restless, independent-minded experimentalist, and by the time the band dropped the lumbering double album Stadium Arcadium in 2006, you could almost hear his other bandmates trying to rein him in. The Chili Peppers had already been faking the funk for years by this point, allowing hollow party songs like “Get On Top” and “I Like Dirt” to sit uncomfortably to next to far more emotionally complex compositions like “The Velvet Glove” and “Road Trippin'”. There’s not much slap bass to be heard on the largely Frusciante-written By the Way, something the band sought to rectify with Stadium Arcadium. It was pretty obvious by this point that Frusciante would rather not be up on stage playing “Hump De Bump” every night.
So Frusciante split, Flea joined Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace, Kiedis started a family, and longtime drummer Chad Smith started a band with tequila huckster Sammy Hagar. With over 65 million albums sold worldwide and enough hit singles to keep karaoke bars in business till the apocalypse, it would almost seem greedy for the band to try to continue on without the only guitarist truly born to play in the Chili Peppers. For Flea and Kiedis, however, the band is in their DNA. They’ve lived their entire adult lives as Chili Peppers and one day they’ll be buried in Chili Pepper-shaped coffins, wearing nothing but the aforementioned tube socks, strategically placed.
Instead of undertaking the unenviable task of attempting to replace Frusciante with a marquee name, the Chili Peppers quietly promoted their auxiliary guitarist, a lanky 31-year-old named Josh Klinghoffer, who also happened to be a friend and disciple of Frusciante’s. The new lineup hit the studio with longtime producer Rick Rubin and laid down the basic tracks for a new album in record time (for the Chili Peppers, anyway). Listening to “Brendan’s Death Song”, the first song written and recorded for what would eventually become I’m with You, it’s easy to see why the band decided to soldier on. While Klinghoffer plays a tasteful lick on an acoustic guitar, Kiedis, his voice charged with emotion, sings what will probably go down as one of the band’s most gorgeous earworm melodies. Kiedis, not typically known for his lyrical eloquence, pays tribute to recently departed band biographer Brendan Mullen with a promise that, “When you hear this, you’ll know it’s your jam, it’s your goodbye.” Eventually, the rest of the band joins the fray. While Kiedis sings himself raw, Flea races up and down the neck of his bass and Smith launches a vicious assault on his drums, driving the song toward a staggeringly cathartic climax. It’s the Chili Peppers at their very best, regardless of who’s holding the guitar.
While the same cannot be said about the rest of I’m with You, it’s certainly a far more engaging album than anyone could have reasonably expected. It’s not the Chili Peppers best album, but it just might their least labored. It almost sounds as if Frusciante’s departure enabled them to make the kind of album that Frusciante would have loved to play on. Of course, leadoff single “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” gives the impression that the band doesn’t even have a guitar player. A repetitive, cowbell blasted shuffle with a dud of a chorus, “Maggie”‘s only guitar hook is a simple slide lick that’s buried deep in the mix. It’s far and away the least interesting single the Chili Peppers have ever released. (It’s also currently the number one song on the Billboard Top 25 Rock Songs chart, so there’s that.)
Fears of a guitarless Chili Peppers are assuaged as soon as album opener “Monarchy of Roses” roars to life with squall of feedback. The band lays down some meaty, rumbling heavy metal riffs before launching into four-on-the-floor disco. It’s instantly obvious that Klinghoffer’s bandmates are giving him a welcome not unlike the one the dudes from Metallica gave bassist Jason Newstead back in 1988. His guitar seems to be constantly struggling to be heard. It could be a good old-fashioned case of freshman hazing. Or it could just be that Klinghoffer is a more textural, less showy player than Frusciante, preferring fractured, suggestive riffs over repetitive, flashy solos. Either way, the change forces the band to stretch out and fortify their songs with engaging, unexpected B-Sections. The hard charging “Goodbye Hooray” shifts into a jazzy breakdown, while “Meet Me at the Corner” features an outro that wouldn’t sound out of place an early ’70s Stones album.
For the first half of the album, the band seems determined to prove to the world that the Chili Peppers are still the Chili Peppers. Indeed, tracks like the skittering “Ethiopia” and the unabashedly sleazy “Look Around” remind fans that Flea is the world’s mightiest bassist and that Kiedis is probably the most insufferable lyricist of all time. Over the second half of the album the band, stimulated by Flea’s newfound interest in world music and piano, finally stretches out in new and exciting ways. Of course, this band could release an album of Klezmer music and everyone would know it was the Chili Peppers. But songs like the bouncy, piano-driven “Happiness Loves Company” and the twisted carnival stomp of “Even You, Brutus?” show the band fearlessly exploring new territory with highly enjoyable results. While there’s plenty of evidence that this newfangled Chili Pepper lineup could last another ten years, there’s none stronger than the propulsive, positively giddy “Did I Let You Know?” On it, Flea lays down a sashaying groove, while Klinghoffer plays a sultry, liquid guitar riff, driving the song toward a gigantic, radio-ready chorus. The song also finds Flea blasting out a spot-on Mariachi trumpet solo, something he’s rarely been bold enough to do in the past.
As the title implies, I’m with You is a love letter from the band to itself. It’s also a token of appreciation to the Chili Pepper fans that have stuck by the band through countless line-up changes and solid reassurance that the band is still vital without John Frusciante. Not only has Josh Klinghoffer had a stabilizing effect on the band, he has helped ensure that Anthony Kiedis and Flea will be out there bobbing and weaving at each other until they are physically unable to do so.