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If I have to listen to another white person rapping over a metallic funk bassline….The only thing that keeps the new Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album, Californication, from being a competent and occasionally interesting alternative-rock record is the ubiquitous presence of Anthony Kiedis, whose vocal stylings and bafflingly stupid lyrics shit all over his bandmates’ earnest efforts. But no one’s gonna care, because he’s the perfect rock star for the suburban youth who shop at Best Buy: a part-time junkie who flirts with throwing away stardom (proving he’s sincere) and an uplifting neohippie with a sophomoric view of sex.
Californication, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ umpteenth update on frat-boy rock-funk fusion, heralds the return of John Frusciante, the guitarist who took the band out of the party-rock gutter with his contributions to Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the band’s 1991 breakthrough. Frusciante then walked out on the huge success, choosing heroin and poor hygiene over the trappings of fame. With the overdose death of original guitarist Hillel Slovak in the ’80s and the rumored mental breakdown and departure of eventual Frusciante replacement Dave Navarro, one can’t help but wonder how Kiedis manages to pull his ass out of rehab every few years to make a new record while his more talented mates slide into oblivion or die.
With Slovak at the helm, the Peppers were a fun, if predictable, party band. In love with the bass-driven moves of Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield, the early Peppers were the house band at the late-’80s alternative prom—inoffensive, because they didn’t dare act as if they meant anything musically compared with the sincerely good funk-punk fusion of the Minutemen and the Big Boys. But with Sex Magik, Frusciante’s considerable ax skills allowed them to actually write songs—not particularly good songs, but enough innovative melodies and verses to set them apart from the thousand other schmoes playing at the Alpha Sigma Alpha House. Navarro, an alum of arena-rockers Jane’s Addiction, added some glam charisma to the formula, and the band continued to sell millions, but it clearly missed Frusciante’s ability to wring a moment of clarity and grace from a funk anthem through a minimalist guitar line.
From a musical standpoint, Californication commits no mortal sins. It’s a completely professional effort that will likely please the band’s many fans. Rhythmatists Flea and Chad Smith, if lacking the soul and sheer fire of their black funk heroes, are damn fine players who slap and noodle while understanding how to make middle-class asses move. Technical chops aside, their real accomplishment is knowing that, for all their skills, Frusciante has the artistic guts they lack.
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While the songwriting on Californication continues to sound like a product of the WHFS-friendly factory producing alternative soundtracks to fresh-scrubbed modern lives (saccharine ballads, mosh-ready rockers, and funk tributes), the best moments belong to the guitar player. With the opening track, “Around the World,” fuzz bass thunders before a minor guitar burst signals a semi-new take on post-punk guitar scrabble, but the brief moment ends when the band quickly falls into a midtempo meander. Throughout the record, the formula repeats itself all too often: neat-o guitar scratch overwhelmed by utterly unsurprising songcraft.
Having achieved star status on Sex Magik with the spare melody and gentle riffing of “Under the Bridge,” the ever-careerist Peppers can’t help but go back to the same well. Despite their reputation as rockers, no less than one-third of Californication’s tracks are ballads that begin to rock only after showcasing Kiedis’ vocal skills up front. Kiedis has three approaches to vocals: terribly flat crooning, stiff rapping, and gentle speak-scatting that makes me long to hear Lou Reed. Nobody’s going to get kicked out of the rock canon for weak singing, but Kiedis comes close with his lyrical nonsense.
After listening to the sensitive Tony sing, “Born in the north/And sworn to entertain ya/Cause I’m down for/The state of Pennsylvania,” from “Around the World,” it’s almost a relief when the band starts to rock out with “Get on Top.” (Five long tracks before a rocker—I told you that the band knows that ballads move units.) Frusciante rips a moment of real funk before the fast bass-drum movement overwhelms it, and the momentum gets lost when Kiedis opens his mouth. I am not making this up; he actually sings, “Go-rilla cunt-illa/Sammy D and Salmonella/Come with me ’cause I’m an ass killer/You’re ill but I’m iller.” (Memo to Warner Bros. marketing department: If you want good reviews, do not include lyric sheets with future releases.) My girlfriend says that lyrics like these are allowed for the same reason Charles Bukowski has a publisher: They give people a chance to feel base without having to say anything dirty themselves.
Potty talk aside, it’s frustrating to hear Frusciante milk feedback in a manner that reminds me of Andy Gill of Gang of Four (no shit) on “Emit Remmus” before exploding into a greasy power riff that makes me care why he plays guitar. The tones, the notes, the swagger: Passion like this is wasted on both his bandmates and audience. The best track on the record, by far, is the most understated. “This Velvet Glove” sounds like an early-’80s New Wave number with minor-key chords stolen from New Zealand rockers the Clean. It’s nice—until the understatement gives way to the crescendo needed to win the modern-rock market share it will surely get.
So that’s what you’re going to get, market-share-grabbing schlock rock. The millions who have loved the Peppers since Sex Magik will no doubt dig this risk-free record. The band members are happy with it because it does exactly what they appear to have set out to do, which is sound like the Chili Peppers. While the trite epiphanies of the slower tracks make the most money, the Peppers are marginally better at rocking—yet Californication sorely lacks enough rock songs to warrant the obnoxious lyrics. Frusciante was better off when he was a toothless junkie recording solo songs like “Your Pussy Is Glued to a Building on Fire.” It was crude, but at least it wasn’t boring. Get out of there and take your Strat with you; the money ain’t worth it, John.
And another thing. What’s with the bizarre obsession with menses? The band “statement” issued by Warner Bros. says, “The Red Hot Chili Peppers love music. Music is a way of making colors of sound. They are together as a band because their respective creative flows have been the heaviest when they get their collective creative flow together.” Trite? Yes. Fatuous? Of course. But when Kiedis sings, on “Purple Stain,” “To finger paint is not a sin/I put my middle finger in/Your monthly blood is what I win/I’m in your house now let me spin,” I start to get nauseated. Maybe Kiedis is jealous of women, because that attempt at rapping proves that the man has no flow at all. CP