As the Red Hot Chili Peppers continue to enjoy a remarkably successfully career spanning 20 years, the life and times of enigmatic guitarist John Frusciante are sometimes overlooked. Back in 1988 the teenage whiz stepped into a pair of sizable musical shoes after the untimely death of original Pepper Hillel Slovak, and anchored the band’s breakthrough album, Mother’s Milk. Two years later, Frusciante flashed more fretboard wizardry with his contributions on the massive Blood Sugar Sex Magik. What seemed to be a promising future for the young Frusciante took an unexpected detour, as the trappings of success proved too difficult to manage. An abrupt departure from the Peppers followed by a frightening spiral of drug addiction nearly claimed his life. Remarkably, however, Frusciante survived several very dark years to reemerge and join his Chili comrades once again in 1998. Since then, the Peppers have continued to record and tour to world wide acclaim, thanks in large part to Frusciante’s resurrection and maturation as an innovative player.
After leaving the band in 1992, Frusciante took a page from the Syd Barrett book of musical eccentricity by delving into his creative consciousness. A pair of solo projects were released in 1994, but garnered little critical attention. Now, nearly a decade later, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt have been made available a second time and are worth revisiting.
Falling somewhere between madness and brilliance, the two sets of recordings exemplify a growing talent indulging himself in sonic exploration. While Frusciante’s singing is often shrill and his lyrics confounding, the simplicity of his playing holds special appeal. In much the same way that blues great Robert Johnson’s spartan recordings resonated with passion, Frusciante’s acoustic and electric work shines in its sparseness. And it is in this unique and personal interpretation of the guitar that his hidden genius lies. There are no walls of amps or pounding rhythm section for support, merely a person playing for himself in an intimate, stripped-down home studio environment.
Of the two albums, Niandra LaDes is the more polished effort, as it is made up of a dozen “finished” compositions. Conversely, Usually Just a T-Shirt consists of 13 untitled tracks, mostly instrumental jams and snippets. In both cases, the recordings capture Frusciante going off on numerous tangents, resulting in an equal number of bizarre and endearing moments.
It would be easy to dismiss Frusciante as yet another talented, albeit spaced-out, guitarist plying his trade as a member of a multi platinum selling band. In fact, after inexplicably departing from the Peppers, Frusciante was labeled as a certified oddball. That said, the Niadra solo recordings from that time period tell a different story. While not commercially mainstream, the two albums hint at a deeply cerebral artist looking within for inspiration and creativity. What was found was a pronounced deviation from Frusciante’s work with the Peppers, but the material speaks its own language.
Sensitive? Peculiar? Interesting? These words accurately sum up Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt. They also describe John Frusciante.