Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You (2011)

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Though they often play with a familiar steely aggression, the Red Hot Chili Peppers seem nevertheless to be rounding the corner into middle age. I’m With You, the band’s first project since the 2006 double-album Stadium Arcadium, is often focused on departures — of youth and of old friends, perhaps a direct reaction to the exit of guitarist John Frusciante.

The longest layover in band history, clearly, gave them time to think.

Still, this being the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and thunderous bassist Flea being, well, thunderous on the bass, you’d expect most of these ideas to be buried deep in the group’s trademark whomping frat-boy funk, right? You even have lead singer Anthony Kiedis, during the disco-y lead single “Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” boasting of a desire to “to rock you like the ’80s.” Not so fast. This Rick Rubin-produced efforts ends up as the most layered, complex offering in a Peppers’ catalog dating back almost three decades.

Flea, seemingly a lifetime removed from wearing tube socks on his privates for photo shoots, has spent time recently studying music theory at the University of Southern California. The Peppers subsequently revamped their writing process, beginning songs as piano compositions before shaping them in the studio. Talented replacement guitarist Josh Kinghoffer then added his own considered asides — proving himself to be a more reflective performer.

All of that plays into the record’s lingering sense of loss, though it never drags I’m With You into a dreary mood. The Red Hot Chili Peppers simply don’t know how to make an album that doesn’t move with a kinetic power, though the musical variety here represents a new wrinkle. “Did I Let You Know,” perhaps best described as a blues reggae, runs so many stock-in-trade double-entendres by that some of them might, in fact, by triples. Been there, done that … until they unleash this mind-blowing mariachi band-influenced horn break. “Look Around” is perhaps the band’s most unfettered, sun-streaked rocker.

It’s doesn’t all connect, of course. Fans of Frusciante’s sledgehammer squall won’t be disappointed as the Peppers burst out with the opening “Monarchy of Roses,” though they will perhaps miss the departed guitarist’s familiar falsetto backing vocals. “Factory of Faith” is nearly sunk by its empty surfer-dude lyrics, until a concluding, insectile flurry of instrumental activity.

With so much change, it’s understandable that the Peppers’ also return to familiar stomping grounds. “Ethiopia” is a towering, if stock showcase for Flea’s grease-popping R&B verve, while “Goodbye Hurray” is so muscular that it sounds, at times, like an outtake from their party-mixtape triumph Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Peppered in between are a group of cinematic ballads, a hit-making move in the past for the group, beginning with “Brendan’s Death Song” — this tolling end-times echo chamber. “Annie Wants a Baby” and “Police Station” delicately detail the toll time takes.

One of the more telling moments, however, arrives with “Meet Me at the Corner,” and its raw-boned solo from Kinghoffer. The track is a world away from the glam-rock emptiness that sunk the Peppers’ last Frusciante-less release, 1995’s One Hot Minute featuring guitarist Dave Navarro.

Instead, the new album’s most recognizable trait is this nearly bottomless bottom end – a canny move at the mixing board by Rubin that, during a period of uncertain transition, pushes the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ most recognizable aural detail to the fore: Flea’s girder-rattling bass lines. And it’s refreshingly concise, after the sprawling, unfocused Stadium Arcadium.

The result: A band that sounds like it’s fully aware of this precarious crossroads moment, both in the sense of its advanced age as a rock band and of its own shifting personnel. Kiedis and Co., it seems, are ready to once again embrace the changes that have followed.

During the titanic closer “Dance, Dance, Dance,” he sings: “Give yourself a chance to find a way.” On this, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ improbably boisterous 10th release, they’ve done just that.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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