Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 2001 album ‘By The Way’ can be seen as a pivotal album for the band. While their early 90s releases ‘Mother’s Milk’ and ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ very much acted as a worldwide breakthrough with a strong mix of rock and funk, ‘By The Way’ bought a new maturity to the Chili Peppers sound. That album’s songs had many more soulful elements and fewer rap style elements than previously, and the song writing became even more radio friendly. The band attempted a similar vibe on their 2006 follow up, ‘Stadium Arcadium’ – a sprawling double set which almost did away with all things overtly funk driven. Quite frankly, although ‘By The Way’ achieved some enjoyable results, by comparison, ‘Arcadium’ was bloated, far too safe and ultimately incredibly boring.
Half a decade later, the band has seen an important change in personnel, with long serving guitarist John Frusciante having departed (for the second time). With new blood comes new ideas, but although the arrival of Josh Kinghoffer (a man who once had a band with Frusciante) has given the band’s sound a noticeable lift, he doesn’t seem to have changed the Chili Peppers as dramatically as the arrival of Dave Navarro back in 1996.
Those who approach ‘I’m With You’ – the Chili Peppers’ tenth studio release – expecting a return to the arrogance and bluster which fuelled ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ are likely to find the album a little too commercial in places, but thankfully, it has more spark than the band has shown during the preceding decade. And while there’s an instant familiarity with some of the material, there’s never any obvious point where the band appear to be rewriting old songs or attempting to live off past glories.
This is evident right from the moment the opening number ‘Monarchy of Roses’ hits its stride. Following a somewhat messy intro of feedback squalls and rolling drums, the rhythms are incredibly tight. Chad Smith sounds more inspired behind his kit than he has in some years, while Klinghoffer’s guitar rhythms are sharp and heavily driven by funk. As you’d hope, Anthony Kiedis’s vocals are incredibly tuneful and Flea’s accompanying bassline is busy, though not as out there as his formative years. It’s a fantastic opening statement, one which you’d fear the band are no longer capable of following with a similar intensity, however, during following track, ‘Factory of Faith’, the band sound just as enthused – perhaps even more so. The number is dominated by Flea’s bass, constantly looping and bending, over which Kiedis delivers a vocal which has a hard, almost staccato style (much less flowing than most his ‘Stadium Arcadium’ performances). These elements combined celebrate the band’s older funk elements while pitching them against a strong chorus, thus tipping the hat to their more radio friendly sounds of the naughties.
Even more surprising, parts of ‘Look Around’ resemble the band which recorded ‘Mother’s Milk’ almost two decades previously. Yes, it’s a little slower and, of course, a little more mature, but the thickness of Klinghoffer’s guitar tone brings a strong tribute to the Chili Peppers of yesteryear. His leads even mimick Frusciante’s tuneless wails on occasion. As for the song writing itself, the funky verses are enjoyable, but the chorus is stupidly infectious – one of the best things the band has written in a long, long time. Strong vocals, strong melodies, strong musicianship; you really couldn’t ask for more. The semi-acoustic ‘Brendan’s Death Song’ shows the band’s softest side at first, with a gentle arrangement underpinned by Smith’s rolling drums – almost tribal on occasion – but before long things sound a little predictable. There’s no obvious hook here and things never pick up beyond a mid pace. A sharp rise in aggressiveness towards the end allows Smith to bash at his kit in a tried and tested rock style, and that change of mood is much needed. However, despite best efforts from all concerned, a combination of relatively ordinary arrangement and slightly too long a duration makes this number ‘I’m With You’s weakest link.
‘Goodbye Hooray’ has a sharp edge in a style the Chilis have never really had before. This is likely down to Klinghoffer’s guitar tones which are more insistant than most of Frusciante’s noodlings, though certainly not as aggressive as Navarro’s leads on tracks like ‘Warped’. Throughout this number, they combine a typical musical sharpness with another very tuneful chorus. Those who came to check out Flea’s basslines with probably find this is a number they’ll return to most frequently; not only does he turn in some upfront bass which busies almost relentlessly beneath what is otherwise another commercial chorus, but there’s also an incredibly impressive bass solo midway. Not to be outdone, Kinghoffer’s featured solo at the end of this number is angry and metallic – perhaps the most threatening piece of guitar work to appear on a Chili Peppers record since Dave Navarro’s departure.
‘Annie Wants a Baby’ brings a greater leaning toward pop harmonies, but even these are generally more inspiring than anything ‘Stadium Arcadium’ even attempted to offer its audience, similar or otherwise. ‘Annie’ captures the band in fine vocal form, but perhaps most importantly, gives each of the players equal space in its arrangement. Chad Smith provides a solid backbone and Flea’s basslines are unwavering – never missing the opportunity for a few interesting fills on occasion. Perhaps, though, it is Klinghoffer’s ringing guitar tones which bring the greatest element to this number, proving that he is gifted with a little more finesse than his immediate predecessor.
The lead single ‘The Adventures of Raindance Maggie’ is equipped with a great pulsing bassline and singalong chorus. It isn’t the most adventurous cut here, but even so, it’s hard to knock the arrangement – casting a funky, yet poppy groove throughout; even with the addition of a slightly intrusive cowbell, it’s all great stuff. ‘Even You Brutus’ brings something a little different to the Chili Peppers’ repertoire – a tune which has a strongly rooted piano line. After a slow intro, the tune moves into a slightly r ‘n’ b influenced groove where that piano lays down some hard chords throughout. Even though this tune doesn’t have the sharp qualities of a few others on ‘I’m With You’, Flea can still be heard beavering away underneath the chorus, weaving intricate basslines, making them fit where others wouldn’t dare think they would be suitable. While certainly not gold standard RHCP, you have to give the band a little credit for trying something new.
Combining a few pounding drums with a calypso inspired (dare we say disco, even?) arrangement, ‘Dance Dance Dance’ closes the selection of tunes with something very upbeat. As with most of ‘I’m With You’, it’s well crafted, but it’s with a brief instrumental break where the greatest moment can be heard. Klinghoffer cranks his guitar a little and Smith also ups the ante and the pair drive home a great, choppy riff; if only it had gone on longer than a few bars, the band could have really started cookin’! But a few bars is all we’re given before returning to the funky calypso-ish sounds. It could be said ‘Dance Dance Dance’ a little throwaway, but it makes for a pleasing end to the album.
Despite all the pre-release hype, it was likely that ‘I’m With You’ could have wound up being a crowd pleasing, relatively safe affair that only served to make middle aged people feel hip. It’s so thrilling to be able to say that the Chili Peppers were as good as their claims prior to the album’s release: they really sound like they’re getting off on this material and not just going through the motions. Since Flea has said these fourteen cuts were selected from a stockpile of seventy songs, there’s a strong sense of quality control – and it shows. Welcome back, guys, welcome back.