February 26, 2004

Kickin' the Keith Richards

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The simple fact that John Frusciante is still alive to put out a fourth album is miraculous. In the last ten years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist has survived a seemingly infinite supply of drugs, third-degree burns, and fatal diseases. His history is so amazing that any review demands a recap: Frusciante walks away from rock stardom in the early ’90s at the zenith of Chili Peppers fame, secludes himself like a hermit in his Hollywood mansion, scrawls indecipherable graffiti on his million-dollar walls, and records two albums solely for drug money while admittedly “stoned for every single note.”

Coincidentally, the only guest musician on either album, the late actor River Phoenix, dies soon after from drug-induced cardiac arrest. Just when you think it can’t get worse, Frusciante’s teeth protest the copious amounts of heroin by rotting out, and his body shrivels up like the bad guy who chose the false grail at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Somehow, Frusciante pulls himself out of the pits of Hades through yoga, music, and V-8, and rejoins the Chili Peppers for two of their best albums, which brings us to Shadows Collide With People.

Frusciante combines his earlier drug music aesthetic with a pop sensibility, creating his best album to date. Gone are the incoherent ramblings, lo-fi background buzz, and painful screeches. Frusciante’s voice is the biggest surprise. What used to vacillate between an addict’s dying gasp and a high-pitched wail is now alarmingly pleasant. On “Ricky,” he even coos ooh-la-la-la repeatedly in the background. Thankfully, Frusciante only sings the notes he can hit, which is smart if you have ever heard the live version of “Under the Bridge.”

The music of Shadows Collide mixes acoustic strumming and synthesizer touchups. Flea thumps out a bass riff or two on the album, but mostly the instrumentation steps out of the spotlight, leaving room for Frusciante’s straightforward voice and Pet Sounds harmonies. The most interesting songs of the album are the all-synthesizer ramblings that sound half-Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and half-Aphex Twin sans the beats.

Frusciante gives a helpful code to identify these songs — anytime you see a number in the song title, anticipate no voice, guitar, percussion, or structure. “Double-0 Ghost 27,” for example, contains random chords with what can only be described as pure, unidentifiable noise layered on top. On “Failure 33 Object,” Frusciante plays with Bach-like chords and a queasy tremolo.

Moving away from the depressing whirlpool of despair communicated in his earlier work, Frusciante’s lyrics channel happiness and an appreciation of life. The title of “Song To Sing When I’m Lonely” speaks for itself. “Second Walk” also contains feel-good lyrics like, “Be who you are/Do what you do.” With Good Charlotte singing, they would be stale, hackneyed clich