In some ways Red Hot Chili Peppers have everything to lose on this album. The recent departure of creative polymath John Frusciante, at whose door much of the plaudits for 2006’s ‘Stadium Arcadium’ (and, let’s be honest, all of the band’s best albums, from ‘By The Way’ right back to ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magick’) can be laid, could easily have seen the band struggle to produce the goods as they move into their fourth decade of hip-popping guitar-based funk. A struggle it may be, but they’ve produced here an album not without some enduring fresh material.
‘I’m With You’, the Chili’s tenth studio album, brings Josh Klinghoffer into the fold in Frusciante’s signature role, and though he lacks the maximalist melodicism of the departing guitarist, he produces a solid performance here.
The good news for long-term fans is the album is very distinctly a Chili’s record – laidback, funky, choruses to shout into, mid-tempo rock songs. While it lacks the bombastic Hump de Bump swagger of Grammy-winning ‘Stadium Arcadium’, it sees the band return to their roots – indeed, track two, ‘Factory Faith’, might’ve come straight off ‘Freaky Styley’. The opener, ‘Monarchy of Roses’, meanwhile is an experimental jam that has frontman Antony Keidis sounding like Julian Casablancas through a distortion, and a fast, disco groove.
This adeptitude for churning out mid-tempo Californian sing-a-longs has not waned, as evidenced again on the rhythmic ‘Annie Wants a Baby’, a strangely trippy-but-mature ballad, and the Kinks-esque ‘Happiness Loves Company’ (‘Countin’ days and skippin your stones into the sun’, Keidis drawls); a simple song delivered with charm and confidence.
Which is not to say the band necessarily fall completely into old patterns. ‘Brendan’s Death Song’ opens with acoustic guitar-picking, and reflective Keidis lyrics – which are at times elsewhere imponderable (‘I like you cheeky, oh so Mozambique’ comes on a later song). On ‘Brendan’s Death Song’, Klinghoffer keeps things simple and stable and thoroughly well-mannered, much as he does throughout the record as a whole, and Keidis sings, ‘and when you hear this you know it’s your jam, it’s your goodbye’ in homage to deceased friend Brendan Mullen. Rarely have the Chilis sounded so tempered.
There is some funky, flapjack fretwork and East African rhythms on ‘Ethiopia’, and Flea’s bass thrums away in the song’s main portion, while Keidis sings ‘Ee aye oh aye ee aye ay!’ in typically frat-prank fashion. At times the Chilis sound emotionally and musically recharged from their five-year studio hiatus, but Frusciante’s dynamism is sorely lacking at others. More than once the band come across all-too-loose and directionless, particularly on ‘Even You, Brutus?’, though Flea’s bass fills are vintage, and the forgettable dance-punk of ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’.
That said, there are more than enough high points to dismiss the lows. Lead-single ‘The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie’ is irresistibly catchy and among their best ever singles. The elasticity of ‘Look Around’, which opens with a storm of jangling guitar, is refreshing, and Klinghoffer’s stylish playing disappears into the arrangements without attracting much attention, setting him aside from the virtuosic but consumptive work of Frusciante.
‘Look Around’ sounds like a single, while ‘Did I Let You Know’ is a sinuous and infectious number with some melodious riffage and a line of two worth tipping your shot glass for – ‘I can’t resist the smell of your seduction!’
Ultimately there is little showiness here, but after 28 years creating music, the Chilis don’t seem to have anything to prove.
‘Goodbye Hooray’ is a rambunctious, all-cylinders rock song highlighting the duality of partings and celebrations, while ‘Police Station’, is a musical short story about a bygone friend (‘Dreamin of the golden years, I see you had to change careers’), Keidis sounding like an old man propping up the bar and reflecting on the past. Piano emerges midway through the song – bassist Flea recently returned to the classroom at the University of Southern California to study musical theory, and the change in pace is welcome.
Over all then, a solid, passable, effort with some fine points, though the band have stuck largely to a tried-and-tested blueprint. ‘I’m With You’ should keep them firmly in the mainstream alongside the likes of U2, while pleasing legions of Pepperamis everywhere. Where they go from here is the question.