Red Hot Chili Peppers

Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Californication
By The Way
Greatest Hits
Stadium Arcadium


Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Bros. ‘91) Rating: B+
After years toiling as underground heroes noted for energetically crazed live shows and four inconsistent, often-underwhelming studio albums, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funk punk metal stew hit the big time with this album, largely due to the evocative ballad “Under The Bridge,” a huge MTV hit about singer Anthony Keidis' drug addiction. That wasn't the only hit, of course, as "Give It Away" is a classic funk rocker that's easy to sing along (and mosh) to, with a cool phased guitar solo from John Frusciante, and "Breaking The Girl" is another beautiful ballad notable for its pots and pans percussion and a shockingly great vocal from Keidis. He's still not a great singer (or rapper) by any means, but this album was a definite step up in class for all involved. After all, "If You Have To Ask" has Frusciante's wah wah guitar and some catchy falsetto harmonies going for it, "Suck My Kiss" is a memorably obnoxious hard rock stomper, "I Could Have Lied" is another strong ballad with more stellar Frusciante guitar soloing, and "Naked In The Rain" is a lighthearted track led by Flea's slap happy bass, as are most of these songs. Elsewhere, songs such as the socially aware sing along "The Power Of Equality," the ecologically aware "The Righteous and the Wicked," and the touching "My Lovely Man" (about former guitarist and drug overdose victim Hillel Slovak) even go beyond the band's usual "me so horny" lyrics, which are still (unfortunately) present on most of the other songs (most graphically on the ambitious 8+ minute “Sir Psycho Sexy,” which at least is musically impressive, with Frusciante again leading the way with some great soloing on the extended outro). All in all, this is a well rounded and consistently funky party platter on which the musicianship is first rate, with Frusciante's playing in particular salvaging even the (several) lesser songs. Granted, many of these songs sound alike at first, and at a sprawling 74 minutes the album seems to go on freakin' forever. However, repeat listens reveals a diversity not originally glimpsed, as well as subtly creative musical touches that can't help but impress. The album still isn't near the masterpiece that it's sometimes cited as being, as it gets extremely monotonous after awhile, but on Blood Sugar Sex Magik the Red Hot Chili Peppers came of age.

Californication (Warner Bros. ‘99) Rating: A-
The multi-platinum success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik took a heavy tool on the band, in particular Frusciante, who quit the band to become a full time heroin addict. They recruited former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, a gifted player who didn't really fit in with the band, for 1995's disappointing One Hot Minute (it’s three singles, “Warped,” “My Friends,” and “Aeroplane” were still good though). Fortunately, Frusciante got his act together, resulting in the reformation of the band's "classic" lineup (note: the band has had seven guitar players and several drummers over the years!). With the nu metal movement burning up the charts, it seems only fitting that the Peppers, the forefathers of the rap rock movement (along with the grossly underrated Faith No More), should release Californication. Ironic, too, for there's precious little rapping here, as Anthony Keidis comes into his own as a vocalist. He sings beautifully on relaxed ballads (and hits) such as "Scar Tissue," "Otherside" (admittedly only partially a ballad), and "Californication," while Frusciante likewise comes to the fore with some gorgeously fluid guitar (his solo on “Scar Tissue” is particularly evocative and justifiably famous). Of course, any band with Flea and heavy skin pounder Chad Smith (the band's drummer since 1989's Mother's Milk) is gonna be funky, but the band explores a more straightforward mainstream sound here. With inspired results, it should be added, particularly on the album's phenomenal first half, which in addition to the aforementioned ballads features hard-hitting yet melodic highlights such as "Around the World," "Parallel Universe," and "Easily.” True, "Get On Top" and "I Like Dirt" are pure filler, and the second half of the album is less impressive, but it too has its moments. For example, "Porcelain" is pretty if slight, "Emitremmus” gets agreeably heavy, "This Velvet Glove" is another melodic rocker, "Savior" has an impressive Smith drumming performance, some lovely vocal bridges, and Frusciante’s wah wah guitar outro, "Purple Stain" is salvaged by an explosive jam ending, and "Right On Time" has poppy, sing songy, chanted vocals that stick. Granted, the album is still at least two songs too long, and the harder rocking tracks are generally less impressive than the melodic mellower moments that fortunately make up the bulk of the album. The album ends with "Road Trippin'," yet another lush, lovely ballad that will likely lead us into the band's next album, where they will hopefully "sell out" completely and deliver an entire album as lovely as this album's plentiful high points. As it stands, Californication is easily the most instantly likeable and enjoyable album of the band's career, as its music is as striking as its colorful album cover.

By The Way (Warner Bros. ‘02) Rating: A-
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have come a long way since their early jock rock sound, and with songs as strong as the ones on By The Way the band’s gimmicky days of putting socks on their cocks (a cry for attention if there ever was one) are hopefully over. This album is a continuation of the mellower, more mature style first found on their multi platinum comeback album Californication, which is exactly what I was hoping for at this point. The album starts off on a strong note with the title track, one of the few songs here that rocks (along with “Don’t Forget Me,” “Throw Away Your Television,” and “Can’t Stop,” the latter in particular being a major album highlight). However, like all of the other songs here it's primarily highlighted by John Frusciante’s beautiful guitar playing and a wonderfully melodic chorus. The band’s rich vocal harmonies are a welcome discovery, while Anthony Keidis continues to croon sweetly rather than rap ruggedly (rare is the charismatic frontman who can suddenly become a very good singer 15 years into a career). As on Californication, the band continues their more straightforward and professional (and less funky) path, which may disappoint some of the band’s early fans. However, any excitement that's sacrificed is more than made up for by the band’s newfound commitment to their craft, as well as their consistent creativity. Truth is, for the second album in a row the band are at their best showing their gentler side on songs such as “Universally Speaking,” “Dosed” (my personal favorite), “The Zephyr Song” (an airy pop song that’s the album’s first single), and “Tear,” an expertly constructed song that evokes The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Other notable songs include “This Is The Place,” which has a beautifully flowing melody, “Cabron” and “On Mercury,” which coast along on light Spanish and ska melodies, respectively, and “Venice Queen” which atmospherically ends the album on an ambitious note. Actually, there isn’t a bad track among the 16 songs here, but there are a few that I could live without, especially since the album’s overly generous 68 minutes are difficult to listen to in a single sitting. Had the band trimmed away some of the fat By The Way could’ve been a classic, but, like the also flawed but still excellent Californication, this is still a stellar summer album by a band who continues to add new wrinkles to what's starting to look like a potential Hall Of Fame career.

Greatest Hits (Warner Bros. ‘04) Rating: A
As Flea states in the liner notes: “The songs on this record are from the last 13 years or so. It is a nice selection. The amazing thing about them is that they are actually all hits (except for the new ones, but ya never know...).” Well, it doesn’t look like either of the two news songs (“Fortune Faded,” “Save The Population”) are going to be hits, but that’s not because they’re not good (though neither are more than that), and I’d be hard pressed to find too much fault with the song selection or non-chronological sequencing of this compilation, though “Around the World” (their second single from Californication), "Love Rollercoaster" (an Ohio Players cover that had previously appeared on the Beavis and Butthead Do America soundtrack), and “Warped” and "Aeroplane" (both minor hits from One Hot Minute) would’ve been nice inclusions. Still, this compilation hits most of the essentials and makes a nice companion piece to 1992’s What Hits?, which did a good job of highlighting the earlier, far inferior period of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ career (it included the best of their albums prior to Blood Sugar Sex Magik plus “Under The Bridge”). Greatest Hits smartly takes 11 of its 16 songs from their three best albums (the ones I previously reviewed), including five from their best album, Californication, while also including a popular non-album single (“Soul To Squeeze”), a strong Stevie Wonder cover (“Higher Ground,” from 1989’s Mother’s Milk), a single stellar track with guitarist Dave Navarro (“My Friends,” from One Hot Minute), and the aforementioned new tracks. Quite honestly, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ albums always played more like collections of songs rather than cohesive wholes whose parts couldn't be interchanged, and the band’s singles have invariably been the best songs on their albums. As such, it makes sense that an album containing the big singles from their best period would be their best album by far, and Greatest Hits does not disappoint on that front. My personal favorites would probably be “Under The Bridge,” “Give It Away,” “Californication,” “Otherside,” “Scar Tissue,” “By The Way,” “Parallel Universe,” and “Breaking The Girl,” but this collection’s strength is in its consistency. The Red Hot Chili Peppers rarely make my jaw drop or make me lose myself in excitement the way the very best bands can do, but they are a very good band who have continued to get better over the years, with an increasingly lush mid-tempo sound, gorgeous guitar, and improbably fine vocal harmonies providing the prime highlights on recent albums (which are still funky too, of course). Even singer Anthony Kiedis (curiously, the only band member not to contribute to the liner notes; perhaps he was in rehab?) has become an asset rather than a liability on record in recent years (he’s always been a great frontman onstage), and Frusciante, Flea, and Smith are excellent musicians who are lucky to have found one another (clearly this band’s chemistry is strong). I’ll let Chad Smith sum up this album (and the past 13 years of the band’s career) thusly: “David Bowie says they remember you for three things in your career. At this point, I’d say it’s the socks, the drugs, and being the progenitors of a hybrid rock/funk. I hope this record proves that there is a bit more to us than that.” It definitely does.

Stadium Arcadium (Warner Bros. ‘06) Rating: B+
And to think that I thought that the band's previous albums were too long! They've really done it this time, their immense popularity giving them the clout to pretty much do what they want at this point, so a 28-track double album it is, with 14 songs on each side. I can see where they would've had trouble trimming this album down, as it is awfully consistent, but that doesn't change the fact that this is way too much of a good thing. As one solid album track after another goes by, I'm hard pressed to remember many of them, especially since most of them contain similarly melodic mid-tempo melodies with that laid-back Southern California vibe. If I had to cut some tracks, right away I'd start with some of the more rote RHCP funk-by-numbers tracks (like "Hump de Bump"), as the style that initially made them famous is now the style that I find far and away their least appealing. Then again, they don't exactly have a lot of styles, and that's the problem, as the band lacks the versatility and depth for such a monumental undertaking. In particular, Keidis' lack of vocal range (though he still sounds good for the most part) and shallow lyrics become problematic over the long haul, and Rick Rubin's flat production doesn't help matters, either. Fortunately, the album, which I'd argue peaks early on each side (three out of the first four songs on disc one and the first three songs on disc two) and late ("Wet Sand" on disc one whose guitar solo outro is incredible, and the epic "Turn It Again" on disc two, another great guitar track) and only really starts to sag slightly a little past the mid-section of side two, has a lot of good songs (but few great ones, the best being"Dani California," "Snow (Hey Oh)," and "Wet Sand"). The musicianship is also first-rate as per usual, with Frusciante in particular standing out. Just when I think a song is going to be a filler track, Frusciante will inevitably salvage it with his stellar playing, whether unleashing Hendrix derived fireworks or delicately delivering a gorgeously fluid solo. I'm not even going to try to name other highlights or describe individual songs, because the odds are good that no two people anywhere will agree on which are the best 14 songs that could've made this into a more manageable single cd. This is both the strength (consistently good songs) and weakness (monotonously consistent songs) of Stadium Arcadium, on which a very good band trots out one good-to-very-good song after another, but for over two freakin' hours, or about an hour too long. P.S. OK, on second thought, after several more listens, I’ll attempt to list a condensed single cd version of the album: “Dani California,” “Snow (Hey Oh),” “Stadium Arcadium,” She’s Only 18,” “Slow Cheetah,” “Strip My Mind,” “Wet Sand,” “Hey,” “Desecration Smile,” “Tell Me Baby,” “Hard To Concentrate,” “She Looks To Me,” “Make You Feel Better” and “Turn It Again.”

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