Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers – Helen Burns EP (2012)

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You’re expecting something with an itchy sense of funk, just as hyperactive as it is hilarious. It’s Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, right?

Not exactly. In fact, usually not at all. Still, his new EP Helen Burns ends up being just as much fun, though in a more cerebral way.

“333,” the opener, begins with a ruminative series of instrumental runs — surging horns, bubbling bass, trickling electric piano — straight out of turn-of-the-1970s Miles Davis and In a Silent Way. Slowly, Flea’s bass figure begins to gather momentum, and as it does, a lonely trumpet moves to the fore. The rhythm then continues to hurtle faster and faster until it becomes a mechanical whir, morphing eventually into a scronky dance beat. In this hyper-kenetic new world, everything moves at a blinding pace — until, well, it doesn’t anymore, as “333” descends into a white noise accompanied by an empathetic acoustic piano.

And that’s just the opener. Breathlessly, you realize there are five more tracks to go.

From there, Flea makes a dramatic turn toward much more contemplative textures and emotions: “Pedestal of Infamy” delves into an offbeat jazz-inflected melancholy, while “A Little Bit of Sanity” explores a kind of dance trance. The title track again opens with a raw-boned piano signature, with a devastatingly fragile vocal from Patti Smith to follow.

It’s with no small amount of anticipation that “333 Revisited” arrives, and Flea does not disappoint — taking the song and turning it completely inside out all over again. Finally, there’s “Lovelovelove,” with its weird synthesizer paroxysm and billowing vocal outro from the Silver Lake Conservatory’s choir. The song ends like a question mark, with a deeply nostalgic harmonica that recalls another period-piece sound: Steve Wonder.

Forget what you think you know about Flea. He’s traded socks on his private parts for something deeper, more meaningful. And he’s giving all of the money away, to boot.

Helen Burns, a benefit project for the community-based non-profit Silver Lake Conservatory music school, is available for download at the conservatory Web site through August 9, 2012. Donations of any amount are accepted. After that, the EP will be available through all the usual digital retailers. A special signed edition of the album, pressed on 180-gram vinyl and accompanied by a bass string played by Flea on tour, is also for sale at the above link for $75 — with all proceeds going to the conservatory.

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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

JOHN FRUSCIANTE – LETUR-LEFR (2012): A millennial amalgam of aerated, early 1980s-inspired electronics, soaring R&B vocals and gritty hip hop realism. You were expecting, like, guitar? Not so much on the former Red Hot Chili Peppers axeman’s Letur-Lefr, a progressive synth-pop surprise. Instead, Frusciante delves deeper into sounds he’s claimed as influences for years like Depeche Mode, New Order and the Human League, but with new wrinkles courtesy of soulful wailer Nicole Turley (aka Frusciante’s wife) and RZA — the Grammy-winning producer/MC from Wu-Tang Clan.

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS – I’M WITH YOU (2011): 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? 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.

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS – GREATEST HITS (2003): The Chili Peppers is one of those bands that I resisted. They were getting airplay from Mother’s Milk (“Higher Ground”, no doubt) and I just did not get it. Then Blood Sugar Sex Magik came out. This was the Peppers’ London Calling, their Dark Side Of The Moon (and hopefully not their Frampton Comes Alive). The funk was undeniable: killer guitar riffs and powerful in-the-pocket drumming, all anchored by Flea’s kinetic and soulful bass. So one day at work I’m listening to BSSM and a co-worker asks me if I’ve heard the ‘real’ Chili Peppers. He offers up his LP copies of Uplift Mofo Party Plan and Freaky Styley. Cripes, this stuff is nuts!

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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