Their biggest sounding record yet.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
By The Way
BACK IN 1995, One Hot Minute gave every indication of being Red Hot Chili Peppers’ swansong, Three bumpy years in the making it emerged at a time when the band were barely on speaking terms while new boy Dave Navarro — a troubled soul even by their standards —was already about to be defenestrated. In the absence of a crossover hit to match the elegiac Under The Bridge, it sold half the 8.8 million of its patchy 1991 predecessor Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Jacking up and jacking it in made a certain kind of sense.
It might have been a commercial step backwards at the time and it remains much underrated, but without it there would have been no great leap forwards. With hindsight it marks the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ watershed, the moment Anthony Kiedis— possibly inadvertently —wrestled artistic control from Michael “Flea‘ Balzary. For all his extraordinary bass playing, Flea’s musical taste had held destructive sway. Think of the lame George Clinton-esque funk pastiches; think of Clinton actually producing 1985′ witless Freak Styley; think of their silly jazz stylings and their Sun Ra flirtations. That was Flea, the prodigal child trumpeter whose first band were hopeless punkers Fear, accidentally stymieing potential greatness.
One Hot Minute marked the shedding of the musical detritus. Kiedis was in such complete control that his former acolyte John Frusciante, despite being patent need of a bath, rejoined, allegedly at Flea’s instigation. When the magnificent Californication appeared in 1999, One Hot Minute had done its job suddenly. Red Hot Chili Peppers were amongst the biggest bands on the planet.
Following such a deserved success was never going to be easy (although try comparing it with following failure), but precautions were taken to ensure Red Hot Chili Peppers did not slump again, artistically or commercially. Consistency was the key: the line-up remained unchanged and safe pair of hands Rick Rubin was invited to produce his fourth successive Red Hot Chili Peppers album/
The good news is that everyone has upped their game. The bad news? There really isn’t any. They may regret asking film director Julian Schnable, father of the woman fortunate enough to be Frusciante’s girlfriend, to do the idiot-savant cover art- and someone should point out to Kiedis, that if he wants people to stop talking about his drug use, he really should stop writing songs about drugs and beginning a song such as This Is The Place, “This is the place where all the junkies go”.
Kiedis’s might be the guiding vision, but this isn’t his album as such. He has, however, given the vocal performance of his life. He’s a proper singer these days, flexible but consistent, able to convincingly flit between rousing cheerleader and pathos-ridden chronicler of West Hollywood nightlife on the title track. Most telling is how intimate and sad his baritone sounds against the joyous backdrops. Listening to him sing is akin to being told a succession of deeply personal secrets. And he’s too remorseful to sneer.
“California skies got room to spare,” he croons on the gorgeous Tear. Lyrically, By The Way is another Los Angeles album, notwithstanding the fact that Navarro was the last native Californian Red Hot Chili Pepper. Kiedis is to Los Angeles what Bruce Springsteen was to Philadelphia in Streets Of Philadelphia or a West Coast version ofJon Voight’s Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. Kiedis might have lived there for nigh-on 25 years but his Los Angeles is seen through the wide eyes of an outsider, gawping at the grubby horror beneath the gloss. On the downbeat Don’t Forget Me, he’s shuffling morosely down Sunset Boulevard close to where he lives in real life, his heart breaking for everyone (“tell me where you wanna go”), before unleashing an almighty roar of defiance on the chorus. He loves and hates LA, is entranced and terrified by it. From this dichotomy emerges his always lonely vision.
In fact, Red Hot Chili Peppers are the first truly great Los Angeles rock band since The Beach Boys hit their stride, and don’t they know it. Thus, one of By The Ways myriad life-enhancing features is its backing vocals and on Tear, Universally Speaking and This Is The Place, they’re right out of the Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks school. The multi-melodied Tear is so downright weird — but still melodically blessed —and inventive, it could have graced Smile without so much as a chord change. Oh, and the best news of all is that from 16 tracks, there are 15 mighty choruses, plus the spooky Warm Tape which has an unnatural desire to break into Duran Duran’s Save A Prayer.
Frusciante is a revelation. He was always capable of being a special guitarist. Now, he’s surely the best of his generation, eschewing all onanistic pyrotechnics. Even his solo on The Zephyr Song is discreet, complementing the glorious Mamas & Papas harmonies, but he does funk (that’s good funk) on Can’t Stop and is genuinely groundbreaking on the sweeping closer, Venice Queen. More than anyone’s By The Way is his, but paradoxically, it’s no guitar album.
As an engine room, drummer Chad Smith and Flea could power a space shuttle. Smith, ever John Bonham-esque, could anchor the Ark Royal, while if Flea is perturbed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ recent sea-change, it doesn’t show in his playing. His work on Throw Away Your Television is a reminder that he can be both out there and on side.
Yet, for all the sum of its craftsmanly attention to detail, By The Way works better as a whole. Unusually, it’s a proper album, flab-free despite its length. More unusually still, there is something to recommend each song and even a minor track such as Minor Thing is graced by sunshine backing vocals.
However, there are moments of sheer wonder and songs to genuinely treasure. The intricate Dosed has a chorus of life-enhancing beauty; Cabron, with its flamenco guitar, tambourine and joyous harmonies is funny but rueful, while Lemon Trees On Mercury’s almost skanking verses segue imperiously into the album’s biggest chorus.
However, The Zephyr Song is Red Hot Chili Peppers’ finest four minutes, showing just how much the foursome (laudably they’re all credited for everything) have evolved. It’s a typical Kiedis theme of flying off somewhere vague, searching for something vaguer still. It begins quietly as Frusciante again tries (and he does not fail) to reinvent the guitar. The verse is full of hooks and oddly moving motifs as Kiedis sings, “take a look, it’s on display for you”, with a tear in his voice. Then, those Mamas & Papas backing vocals pile in, over which Kiedis goes freeform as Frusciante returns with his Glenn Branca hat on. And that’s all before the first chorus.
By The Way is the work of a band who, after 23 turbulent years, as late as their eighth album, are at the peak of their game. They’re also at the peak of everyone else’s game. A fantastic record, full of wonder. John Aizlewood
Much of By The Way is fuelled by Kiedis’s relationship with ex-girlfriend Yohanna. They met in October 1998 at New York’s elite Balthazar restaurant where she worked. They split during the recording of By The Way.