Monday, August 16, 2010

Flashbacks of an Aspiring Music Snob -
The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Throughout this project, I've been cruising through music at a breakneck speed. On the one hand, it's helped me to learn about a large number of artists in a relatively short amount of time. On the other hand, the quick "artist a week" speed means that I'm often just starting to really get into an act by the time I move on to next week's pick.

Of course, I don't just discard the music when the week is over; over time, I find myself returning to certain albums. But there are only so many hours in the day that I can listen to music, and sometimes I feel that I don't have the time to reflect and give music the breathing room that it deserves.

Tastes in music slowly changes over time. The music that really affected me as a teenager seems overly bombastic today, whereas some of the music I really like now was stuff I couldn't stand a few years ago. The first time I listened to Bach's Chaconne in D, I thought it was a hideously boring piece; now, I can't get enough of it.

The past week, I've been on a camping trip, which meant that I didn't have the time, technology or inclination to listen to an album every day. Instead, I decided to take the time off and look back at some of the artists that I listened to early on in this project, before I started blogging about it.

I tend to like most music I listen to for this project because it's new and different and it's hard to articulate why you dislike something after only a few listens. But letting music sit and gestate for a year has an effect on how I listen to it. The excitement and novelty is gone, and I find myself a lot less forgiving of what I might have previously overlooked.

FLASHBACK OF THE WEEK: The Red Hot Chili Peppers

WHAT I LISTENED TO BEFORE: Back in March of 2009, I spent a week listening to Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991). Since then, I've also listened to Mother's Milk (1989), One Hot Minute (1995), and Californication (1999), as well as a few other stray tracks.

MY LISTENING: The Chili Peppers have a great rhythm section which makes them a good band to drive to. Whilst roadtripping up to my camping destination, I took the time to revisit a lot of their good singles, not only from the albums I listed above, but also the few I have from By The Way (2002), Stadium Arcadium (2006) and Freakey Styley (1985).

WHAT I LIKED: The Red Hot Chili Peppers have some of the most rocking instrumentalists out there. As I mentioned above, the rhythm section is especially good, with bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith able to lock in to all sorts of great grooves. Over the past twenty-five years, the band has slowly transitioned from a hardcore rock-funk outfit to more of a soft rock ensemble, which is unfortunate for those who appreciate the funky jams that mark the band's earlier work. Mother's Milk is the underrated album in RHCP's output, an energetic tour-de-force that best showcases the band's funky grooves - it's more refined than the band's earlier stuff without the bombast of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Songs like the hits "Knock Me Down" or "Higher Ground" are the perfect blend of bouncy funk and powerful rock.

Mother's Milk is also the first album with John Frusciante, who has been the soul of the band despite his irregular presence in the lineup. In the beginning, it's as if the band is not quite sure how to meld Frusciante's style of playing with the loud bass and drums. But he begins to shine in the Blood Sugar Sex Magik era, especially on "Under the Bridge" and the riff to the rather silly "Soul to Squeeze." Blood Sugar Sex Magik may not be their best album, but contains the singles that best represent the two sides of the band - the beautiful ballad of "Under the Bridge" and the frenzied funk storm of "Give It Away."

As Frusciante grows in importance, Flea's epic bass starts to fade away and the band mellows. However, I like this side of the band as much as their early funkier days, though in a different way. The energy is gone, but the band managed to harness Frusciante's transcendent guitar riffs on songs like "Scar Tissue" and "Californication" to great effect. His playing is beautiful and immediately recognizable, and Anthony Kiedis' untrained vocal lines combine with Frusciante's playing to create a surprisingly sweet sound. The hard rock still bubbles up in songs like the fun "Dani California," but more less frequently.

This mellow stuff is some of the Chili Pepper's music that I return to the most often. While it's fun to rock out to their early stuff, there's something strangely magical in tracks like "Otherside" or the guitar-heavy "Snow." It's a soft sound that you wouldn't have expected from the band in the eighties, but their growth into this sort of music seems sincere, and Frusciante's guitar adds a haunting effect to what might otherwise be normal kitschy soft rock.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Despite being the frontman, Anthony Kiedis too often is the weak link in the band. Though his vocal skills have grown and he manages to hold his own on the band's later work, you can tell he's best at home when screaming out rap-rock like the early days. His unrefined voice is sometimes an asset - it helps make songs like "Under the Bridge" sound more sincere, but other times it's just holding the band back. It doesn't help that he seems to have the propensity to devolve into nonsense syllables - my girlfriend and I cracked up when, in the middle of "Soul to Squeeze," he inserts the line "Doo doo doo doo dingle zing a dong bone / Ba di ba da ba zumba crunga cong gone bad." It's not an outro. It's just in the middle of the song, like he forgot the words and started stuttering like a madman.

And while I appreciate the band's early stuff, whenever they try and create a resurgence in their later albums it comes across as forced and unwelcome. Californication has some great soft rock, but it also has "Purple Stain," a disgusting rap-funk song about fingering Kiedis' girlfriend ("To fingerpaint is not a sin / I put my middle finger in"). And I never got on board with "By the Way," which starts as a lovely song and transitions into Kiedis shouting random syllables over what is, admittedly, a killer bass riff.

There is an element of immaturity from the band that they can't shake. It especially comes out on Blood Sugar Sex Magik - the funky riffs are there, but the songs are about sex, sex, and more sex, often spoken about in the crudest of terms. "Sir Psycho Sexy" strives to be some sort of funk power ballad, but ends up being goofy and rather embarrassing.

Finally, the band fails with Frusciante, which makes me worry for their future. Their mid-nineties endeavor Red Hot Minute is not as bad as some people claim, but there's nothing particularly memorable, and Dave Navarro's guitar seems to be fighting against the Chili Peppers' aesthetic rather than melding with it. "My Friends" is a good song, but very clearly "Under the Bridge 2.0" and "Aeroplane" is a song that I listen to and think, "John Frusciante should be playing on this." Navarro might have worked better in the band's early days, but he had the misfortune of joining up when the band was transitioning into their soft rock.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK: Flea plays Needles in Back to the Future, Parts II and III. The second one is, if you didn't know this, the best one in the trilogy.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been fairly ubiquitous for the last twenty-five years, so there's still more out there for me to delve into, like The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987) and The Abbey Road EP (1988) as well as the tracks on By the Way and Stadium Arcadium I haven't heard. I need to acquaint myself more with Hillel Slovak - the band's original guitarist. But I think I want to check out John Frusciante's solo stuff - if it's as good as his guitar playing on the Chili Pepper's albums, it'll be a treat.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Under the Bridge"


Really, any track from Mother's Milk would do. It's an underrated album.

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: It'll probably be another flashback next week - perhaps Radiohead? Pink Floyd? We'll see. I'm on vacation. Give me a break.