Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review: Red Hot Chili Peppers, "I'm With You"

I'm With You 
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Warner Bros.

Maturity used to seem like the worst thing that could happen to a group like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After all, when a bunch of old men show you their cocks, even on stage, it leaves the realm of "sexy" and enters the realm of "litigious." But the Peppers always had a subtext deeper than the demon in Anthony Kiedes' semen: As befits a band of native Los Angelenos, their hedonism was always undercut by a sense of brotherhood, a blended family of freaks brought together by the personal tragedies of their own journeys. So it's been a little disconcerting to watch them turn into the Rolling Stones of the 21st century -- a youth gang smart enough to know when its finally time to grow up, but also wordly-wise enough to realize they'll never be that interesting as adults.

At first, RHCP dealt with the stylistic breakthrough of their 1992 hit "Under The Bridge" by endlessly rewriting it, as they became less interested (and less adept) at rocking out and more interested in sober reflection. But sober reflection doesn't pay the bills in the real world. So after By The Way threw the fans a curve ball they didn't appreciate, and the return to arena-rock form on (the aptly-named) Stadium Arcadium left the group itself feeling creatively unfulfilled, I'm With You finds the band settling into (and up with) middle age by exploring new ways to be a pop-rock band. The band who invented punk-funk finally has very little to do with either.

Sure, they still make the occasional attempt. "Ethiopia," "Look Around," "Goodbye Hooray," and the jazzy "Did I Let You Know" are gonna sound just fine on the next tour, sandwiched between "Give It Away," "Knock Me Down," and "Party On Your Pussy." (Did I mention the Rolling Stones?) But a closer listen reveals that even these lifelong miscreants are dealing with some very mature subject matter: friendships left behind, life lessons learned, regrets let go, damage spun. It's probably a coinidence that one of the most adventurorus tracks here, "Even You Brutus," finds Anthony still fucking young girls... and realizing the world now has a problem with that. Maybe. 

As for the music, they keep it refreshingly upbeat and experimental following a lot of soul-searching and the recent departure of longtime guitarist John Frusciante. Now essentially Swan and Flea's band, they stretch out, aiming for dance-rock on the opening "Monarchy of Roses" and "Factory of Faith," then exploring the edges of what they're allowed to get away with and still stay on the radio. "Brendan's Death Song" is suprisingly effective at country, "Happiness Loves Company" is a piano-based shuffle with a good bit of rhythmic heft, "Meet Me at the Corner" utilizes so many blues and jazz touches it almost leaves their back catalog behind. But so far, there's only enough experimentation in this reinvention to raise expectations -- like the Stones, the Peppers would probably reap bigger creative and commercial rewards by breaking free of their old selves entirely and attempting a full-on sellout move. Middle age is no time to be reckless and impulsive. Unless you're an artist.

Graded using the Third Eye Method:

Impact: 62. The visceral thrill is gone, replaced by a lot of brooding. Unfortunately, they had a lot more to say when they were fucking everything.
Invention: 70. 
The Peppers are still searching, though they may be hamstrung by three decades of expectations. 
Integrity: 80. 
It's always great to hear from a rock band that's not full of shit, especially one dealing with life's hard lessons. But being full of shit is also what keeps you interesting. 


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