October 19, 2006

Still Red Hot

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Double albums are tricky. The question to ask really is whether or not the band should have concentrated on the best half of the songs and released those instead of forcing the listeners to wade through the riff raff to find the gems. Stadium Arcadium, too, begs this question, and the answer will divide the world into three populations: die-hard Peppers fans, Peppers fans, and people without ears. True Chili Peppers fans had been waiting patiently for the band’s ninth studio album, their follow up to 2003’s By the way, and will relish in the twenty-eight tracks. They’ll probably begin their quest to locate the other ten songs originally slated for release on Stadium Arcadium when the album was supposed to be a trilogy of albums released six months apart.
The second group will find the album to be a good set of tunes, but they might whine about how some of it got repetitive. This band carved out an entire genre and to date the music world hasn’t heard anyone successfully make the Peppers’ funk metal sound work for them. It’s hard to think of another genre typified by one band alone.
Furthermore, kids, the Chili Peppers have been working of late with an idea called nuance. The songs are each complex enough that each time you listen with a bit of focus, you discover some new feature you missed every other time you listened: a crescendo, a lyrical reference, etc. On “Animal Bar,” (track 2.9,) if you listen closely, about a minute before the song ends, you can hear what sounds like fire alarms in the background.
More noticeably, Anthony Kiedis wrote more ballads for this LP, including the majestic “Hard to Concentrate,” in which he speaks, almost rapping, the verses. Kiedis has said he wrote it as a gift to Flea who recently got engaged, but Kiedis himself has a serious girlfriend named Heather who he makes overt reference to all over this album. On “Desecration Smile,” the lyric “beneath the heather lies a meadowlark,” references her name directly and the first line in “She’s Only 18,” (“She’s only eighteen/don’t like the Rolling Stones”) is an allusion to her as well.
Stadium Arcadium features a lot more introspection and a lot less innuendo. The songs overall are more thoughtful, reflective of the band’s age. Though their live performances would mask their age, they are near mid-life now, in age range from 36 to 45. “Snow (Hey Oh)” is like a musical graduation speech, a far cry from the tales of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll found on earlier songs like “Apache Rose Peacock” or “Purple Stain.” Kiedis has and always have a gift with words, but the content of his lyrics has shifted from sex and drugs nearly ruining his life to love (…and drugs nearly ruining his life.) However, he still maintains a love for geography as exhibited on “Dani California,” “Especially in Michigan,” “Stadium Arcadium,” etc, just like the old times when he took us “Around the World.” And the character Dani from Dani California is one element tying Stadium Arcadium to previous works as she appears the title tracks of each Californication and By the Way.
Guitarist John Frusciante really steps up his game for this album, proving (again) that his dexterity with his guitar is as integral to the Chili Peppers sound as Flea’s prodigious bass-playing or Kiedis’s inimitable vocals. Flea’s bass is a powerful influence on every song, per usual Chili Peppers style, but Frusciante compels you to acknowledge his guitar prowess in nearly every song. Not only does he have a solo in every track, but he rips out a prolonged and complex solo that leaves you with your jaw gaping—the same way that Frusciante likes to play.
Vocal experimentation marks a new chapter of the Chili Peppers later life development. Frusciante showcases his melodious falsetto with his back-up vocals now showing up everywhere, sometimes even competing with Kiedis’ leads as the two are recorded with equal volume. Frusciante lends Beatles-esque harmonies to “Desecration Smile”–the multi-tracked la-la-la’s straight out of “Nowhere Man.” Also, Kiedis harmonizes with himself on multiple tracks, notably “Make You Feel Better.” The usually muted Flea even makes vocal guest appearances such as ticking away on the third track, “Charlie.”
This album brings elements of the symphonic slower music that the band experimented with on By the Way back to their roots in funk. “Hump de Bump” is a true funk masterpiece straight out of the 70’s, an undeniably infectious tune. “Tell me Baby,” “Charlie,” “Storm in a Teacup,” “So Much I,” and a ton of other cuts from the album are all more melodic than slap bass, but the style is still unmistakably funk rock.
Stadium Arcadium really shows that, with John Frusciante coming into his own, the Chili Peppers are one of the biggest super-groups in the history of rock and they have the musical range to use their powers for good. Now please, enough about drummer Chad Smith looking like Will Ferrell!