Let’s start this by chronicling the trials and tribulations of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After truly hitting the big time with 1991’s “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, the band descended into a world of drug use and abuse that eventually gave way to guitarist John Frusciante quitting the band primarily because they were “becoming too popular”. That was partly codespeak for saying he had a pretty crippling drug addiction, which by the way (pun) only got worse after he quit the band and fell into a deep depression. The rest of the boys soldiered on, in spite of their various addictions as well, and Dave Navarro was brought in to replace Frusciante. The Chili Peppers put out “One Hot Minute” in 1995, and it is widely perceived to be the worst RHCP album to date. Navarro struggled to fit into the band’s tightly established dynamic and quit after developing a drug problem of his own. At that point, the Chili Peppers hit an impasse. They were prepared to break up, but that things might be okay again if they brought Frusciante back. After cleaning up their drug habits a bit themselves, they found Frusciante freshly out of rehab and in bad shape both physically and financially. Rejoining the band was a lot like therapy for him, and the resulting record “Californication” sent the band back to the top of the charts bigger and better than ever before. Its follow-up “By the Way” did almost just as well, the boys energized by their renewed success.
Cracks in the facade began to appear once again via the choice to release their 2006 record “Stadium Arcadium” as a double album. Double disc affairs wind up being mistakes for 95% of bands that try it, and the Chili Peppers were no exception. If you whittled down the 28 tracks to just 14, it would have made for a great record. Instead, those great 14 tracks were parsed out across 2 discs and a whole bunch of not so great material, lessening the overall impact of that album. Still, on the strength of singles like “Dani California” and “Snow (Hey Oh)”, they sold more records than anyone else that year. Considering the band had been going pretty much nonstop since “Californication”, it was decided after touring in support of “Stadium Arcadium” that they would take an extended hiatus. Upon reconvening in October of 2009, they did so without Frusciante, who cited differences in musical direction as his reason for leaving. Touring guitarist Josh Klinghoffer stepped in for Frusciante, and RHCP took over a year to write and record their new album “I’m With You”, just to make sure they were satisfied with it. They were smart to take their time considering how their last Frusciante-less record turned out.
Those that wonder exactly why John Frusciante is such a key member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers clearly haven’t spent much time with the band. Frontman Anthony Kiedis is probably the third (maybe even fourth) strongest member of the band, or at least he was until Frusciante left. The way Frusciante’s guitar work soared and powered so many songs on so many RHCP records, it’s a wonder more attention and success hasn’t come his way via his solo work. Bassist Flea is the other key Chili Pepper, one of, if not the best bassist working in music today. When you lose one of your key members, there are several ways you can try to compensate for that person’s presence. One is to find a nearly equally talented replacement, but the bigger the talent the harder that void is to fill. Josh Klinghoffer is no John Frusciante. Not by a long shot. Listening to “I’m With You”, you get the impression that he’s hoping to fill the role of utility player rather than aggressive superstar. His guitar work accents most of the songs, blending into the background instead of surging out in front of the pack and pushing arrangements to new heights. If you’ve heard first single “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie”, that’s about as up-front as Klinghoffer gets, and one wonders what Frusciante would have done with the same song. Ironically, the one song Klinghoffer truly proves his worth on is “Goodbye Hooray”, but you likely won’t notice his blistering solos because he’s overshadowed by intense work from Flea and drummer Chad Smith. Maybe that dynamic will change over time as he becomes more comfortable with his new role in the band.
But the RHCP approach to losing Frusciante appears to rely more heavily on the assets that they do have, which basically means Flea has that much more weight shoved upon his shoulders. Take a close listen to the band dynamic on “Annie Wants A Baby” to get a great idea of just how Flea has taken control of this band and has done a great job teaming up with Chad Smith to drive this record forward. In fact, both Flea and Smith haven’t sounded this vibrant and strong in awhile, practically having taken a back seat to Frusciante the last 10 years. Fully uncaged now, they rise to the occasion. Opening cut “Monarchy of Roses” would easily have fallen flat on its face were those two not behind the helm. The same could be said for “Look Around”. Sometimes even their exceptional work on a song can’t save it from succumbing to a host of bad ideas though. Moments like not-so-hot attempt to be funky on “Ethiopia” and the odd emergence of horns on “Did I Let You Know” cause the band to stumble and fall a couple times. On “Meet Me at the Corner”, what’s sad is how bland and unexpressive the entire band sounds, almost like they’re on autopilot. Tucked away as the second-to-last track on the album, that is the sort of place you hide your filler anyways. It’s just a pity that the word “filler” can be used to describe songs on this or any album for that matter.
For long time Red Hot Chili Peppers fans, the good news is that “I’m With You” is not nearly the mess of a record you might expect given the loss of key member John Frusciante. Josh Klinghoffer may not be the best or strongest replacement they could have gotten, but it’s clear the guy is trying extremely hard and as a close friend of Frusciante’s wants to do his legacy justice. Really it’s Flea and Chad Smith that tower over everyone else on this record, and Anthony Kiedis is no exception. His lyrics on this record show continual improvement over some of the earliest RHCP material, but he remains one of the weaker elements in this band. We’ve been exposed to many sides of his personality over the life of this band, from the early, halting approach from the hip hop and funk days through the smoother and more tuneful side pushed in more recent years. On “I’m With YOu” he sounds a bit bored and unengaged with the melodies he’s given. Moments like “Even You Brutus?” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” are reduced in power and scope because Kiedis doesn’t quite deliver vocally. On the poignant “Brendan’s Death Song” or “Police Station” though, he shows that he can still belt one out to the rafters when needed. So that’s hit or miss, as are a couple of the ballads that populate the second half of the record. The addition of piano is a nice touch in a few cases, but eventually the record becomes somewhat bogged down in slower bits that make you long for something with a little more pep – particularly as the run time moves ever closer to 60 minutes. 10 albums and nearly 30 years in, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are starting to show their age. Still, with or without John Frusciante, there’s plenty of evidence on this record to suggest they could and should keep going for awhile yet. The quality hasn’t nearly dipped past the point of no return. Like a cat, the Red Hot Chili Peppers seem to have nine lives. Let’s keep hoping they use their last ones wisely.