The Chili Peppers and I go way back. “Under the Bridge” struck me when I was still early in elementary school and I’m pretty sure the way I run is mirrored after Anthony Kiedis’ slow motion action movie method of the music video. Middle school ended with purchasing Californication on a trip to Washington, D.C. and spinning it’s rock-skewed songs non-stop. And throughout high school, a personal goal that was achieved was to play the majority of Blood Sugar Sex Magik on a five-string. I can still give you all the bass nuances of that album, even though university (and owning a not-easily-portable four 12″ speaker tube amp) took away much of the playing time. Still, 2002 and 2006 were etched in to the decade’s calendar despite a sound that dulled by a pop-influenced sound (“Universally Speaking”, “The Zephyr Song”) with ripples of past funk attempting to break back into that mold (“Slow Cheetah” and “21st Century”). Yet the Rick Rubin touch was safe. I couldn’t tell you why, but tracks like “Make You Feel Better” lacked some unidentifiable essence of spontaneity and roughness. This year brought I’m With You, spearheaded by “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” and another eagerly anticipated trip to the record store. [RHCP is one rare band I refuse to hear any release in advance. Blind faith. Unless, Rick, the next album…#justsaying]
August brought an end to the self-imposed hiatus; a creative cleansing you could say. Kiedis became a father. Flea spearheaded his non-profit Silverlake Conservatory of Music, founded with Keith Barry, to help counter the nation-wide deprivation of arts funding in public schools. Chad Smith formed and focused on the harder rocking Chickenfoot, oh yeah. And Josh Klinghoffer was brought on when John Frusciante hung up his touring duties with the Peppers in preference for a calmer lifestyle to mutual understanding. The new guitarist, who limelighted as their touring guitarist, was a natural fit first heard through Anthony Kiedis’ friend, Bob Forrest of The Bicycle Thief. The fusion was effortless, with Rick Rubin quoted as calling him “stylistically very close to John but has a completely different trip”.  More poetically, Kiedis busted out the farmers market references with describing bringing Josh on as the “concept of eating local produce…Just your own friend from the neighborhood who happens to be a person you really want to play music with.”  Leading up, the words ‘textual’ were evoked more than a “Naked in the Rain” pull off to describe the style of his guitar work. However, his contributions are profoundly noticeable in the supporting vocals, additional guitar, and keyboard duties. No feign integration here as Josh also assisted in writing songs via piano. Final thing to know before going in? The bass clef virtuoso, Flea, carried his homework from University of Southern California home, applying what he learned in music theory, composition and jazz trumpet to I’m With You. He too wrote songs on piano. His previous method of writing on bass and then translating it to other instruments. The new gave it “a different kind of feeling,kind of more of a liquid, poetic feeling…”  Piano, guitarist, hiatus. I didn’t know at the time, but that starts to explain why the album felt so refreshing the first time it started spinning away in my car.
Noise. Daydreaming guitar notes. Crunching and roiling drums. “Monarchy of Roses” is the first since “Around the World” to boil over at the beginning while the chorus reverts towards a light wah driven back into the shredded edges of a verse. By far, more memorable than the previous two albums’ due to Kiedis’ oscillating and direct singing. The calms between storms, while reassuringly Red Hot Chili Peppers à la Frusciante, seem to serve as a reassurance that Klinghoffer is flexible and can double-up duties. The ending merges the two guitar styles, letting Josh lift off the pavement, in surely an introduction that can translate from arena to Club Lingerie. “Factory of Faith”, with its slide up into the intro, is stripped down to snare, kick and bass. The staccato bridges add a punch that reinforces both Anthony’s pointed singing and funky Flea swagger. The second bridge brings Josh in, lending an easy transition into a typical Chili Pepper layered vocal chorus. It’s pure Pepper fun, and the group tightly represents their earlier sound. Care to counter it? Listen close to the solo at 2’29” for what’s snuck in there. “Bum. Bum. Bum bum.” But a more serious question, what’s happening behind Anthony when he first sings “Factually I”? I’d like to know, Rick.
Short story. The Club Lingerie reference heralds back to 1983, when Anthony and Flea danced to their demo to secure a legendary break. Think John Cusack, but probably with less trench coats (although the famous socks may prove that wrong) involved and courting a club owner instead of an ex. Said club owner was Brendan Mullen, or the man behind “Brendan’s Death Song.” Mullen died while celebrating his 60th birthday in 2009, leaving a void partially filled by a beauty of a ballad and the strongest song of I’m With You. The song is much more a celebration than a somber moment. There is no talk of isolation, no talk of regret. “And when the boatman comes to ferry me away to where we all belong” supports this with clear optimism in eventual reunions. Our time will come, yet “take my words and turn them into sings that will survive because…I knew not to deprive.” Musically the album moves from Josh, to Flea, and now to Anthony. Yes, the acoustic guitar is there but his voice incarnates “Brendan’s Death Song.” The heavy drums of “when the drummer drums” during the middle choral leads into an almost taunting “Come get me” before an initially disorientating instrumental rush. It’s the only strange part of the track, but if you’re seeking meaning it could just be that captured spirit of 1983, when the Peppers had nothing to lose but all to gain.
Flea kicks off “Ethiopia” with how I wish the song was recorded, as impromptu as a full-band jazz recording, which would make those second verse background claps all the more vivacious. Yet “Ethiopia” and its chorus is a solid romp that displays Josh’s integration. The solo, which beings with a basic riff and a soothing set of keys before a hypnotic swirl that an additional guitar comes in and doubles up, gives Klinghoffer a sort conservative moment. It could be called a disappointment, but don’t strike out his newfound backing vocals duties that add more depth to Chili Pepper layered vocals than ever before. The bridge in “Annie Wants a Baby” is clearly shows this harmonization. “Look Around”, while fun, is the first slip up. The punctuated verse let the air out of the lyrical tires. It’s a lively track, with an ambient guitar that bursts into a dizzying chorus. I personally would’ve redone the claps since they sound copy/pasted in like a thrown can of corn in Wet Hot American Summer. Thankfully “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” gets the full length back on track using a strut more infectious than a Saturday night in 1977 to “rock you like the 80’s.”
“Did I Let You Know” slips despite its light surf guitar, which could explain the placement of Maggie. The antithesis of “Monarchy of Roses,” it’s sunny and calms. Mike Bulger is brought on with a trumpet, which would make the track fit better had brass been ever more present earlier. Nevertheless, it’s a solid Caribbean track but feels displaced by the Californians. “Goodbye Hooray” returns with an uptempo Josh and Flea frenzy. The dynamic, its pounding piano further emphasizes Chad Smith’s drumming. That aspect may be under appreciated, as his percussion is, thanks to a production that seems to tilt the Peppers back to their funk and punk roots, sparing and frenetic when they need to be. “Meet Me at the Corner” bolsters this, providing a clear spectrum that feels classically paced. The kind that centers the concentration, creates that tunnel vision in on the sticks and drumheads.
So what’s to take away and keep doing? The piano. Add more. “Happiness Loves Company” and its ivories. Red Hot Chili Peppers are perpetually fun to listen to. The newfound piano, thanks to Flea’s return to university (which I imagine was similar to when Rodney Dangerfield did…or not) and to Josh Klinghoffer, is that refreshing new dynamic that the Chili Peppers had hoped to sonically achieve during that hiatus to listeners. Listen close. You hear the marimba behind the march or the more prominent backing “bop bo bop bi bop”? Those touches color I’m With You to where “Dance, Dance, Dance” is a convincing invitation to return to the beginning.
The album is not framed or bookended, but left open. While it could do with some trimming since 14 tracks unfortunately fatigues in our “mass confusion” society, or better placement of “Did I Let You Know”, I’m With You outshines By The Way with production that is looser than Stadium Arcadium. It’s as if the previous three albums were the Chili Peppers trying to balance people’s demands of either straight pop ballads or funk rock, and finally they settled to listen to who they’ve been and are these days. Keep listening to those inner musicians.
Interesting tidbits by research assistant Mary Thayer: Kreayshawn shot the first video of “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” yet the group did not like it, hence the Venice beach rooftop video. Second, Flea’s daughter, Clara, took most of the press shots and photos for the album.