Red Hot Chili Peppers
et a few drinks in someone raised by the Buzz Bin and you can be treated to a discourse about how today's popular rock acts just aren't as important as those back in the day. Unlike, say, Siamese Dream or Nevermind, mega-sellers like Under the Cork Tree and Hot Fuss will likely never end up on retrospective "best of the decade" lists, and woe is us! Being a proud member of this group, I find it safe to assume that many of these people ended up being the music critics of today, and this year, Christmas has come in May. As if to teach these whippersnappers a lesson, arguably the three biggest albums of 2006 have been released by Tool, Pearl Jam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But in spite of (or because of) their enormous first-week sales, these are all cases of preaching to the choir. Your enjoyment of 10,000 Days and Pearl Jam is directly related to how much you want it to be 1994 all over again. As for Stadium Arcadium, most hype concerning it took on a tenor of "a double album! Who would've thunk it?" Which completely misses the point.
First off, unlike In Your Honor or Hypnotize/Mesmerize, this is not a popular band's bid for artistic immortality. Californication and By the Way already served that purpose. Secondly, a sizable portion of the people who currently own Stadium Arcadium weren't even born when Blood Sugar Sex Magik came out. A gentle giant of an album is exactly the kind of thing we should expect from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's neither a genre explosion like Sandinista! or a collaborative clearinghouse like The White Album, or an attempt to tell a story (putting it on shuffle has no effect whatsoever). Stadium Arcadium is simply a modern Red Hot Chili Peppers LP that happens to contain 28 songs and gives the listener over two hours of opportunities to not be surprised.
Opinions of the group likely won't shift either way, but haters already have their hands full with "Dani California," which stems the Peppers' remarkable tide of great singles. A tale of a small town girl livin' in a lonely world set to the music of "Country House," it's as smug and self-referential as Alicia Silverstone-era Aerosmith. It casts the "Jupiter" half of Stadium Arcadium in a bad light that isn't deflected by "Snow (Hey Yo)" or "Charlie," two of the many songs here which stretch out to nearly five minutes for no good reason. The title of "Torture Me" rings true; it comes halfway through the "Jupiter" album (side two is "Mars"), just when it starts to feel like Stadium Arcadium is never going to end.
A good portion of the blame lies in the production. With all apologies to Steve Albini, no producer has earned the "recorded by…" credit more than Rick Rubin, who ostensibly earned his paycheck by watching the tape roll. Considering its length, there's a desperate need for a few sonic curveballs, yet Rubin creates a landscape so dry, barren, and flat that each disc's subtitles become sadly appropriate.
Despite having such a vaunted rhythm section, most RHCP albums draw their feel from the state of mind of the guitarist who happens to be on it. John Frusciante spent the aftermath of By the Way releasing an album seemingly every month, and the avalanche continues with a predictably numbing effect. Football costumes in the liner notes aside, none of these guys are capable of tackling the amount of material here.
This is to be expected from Anthony Kiedis, who is still rattling off words such as "rockopotamous" and "China Chow" like a precocious E-40 disciple. What he isn't doing so much is singing about sex, drugs, or even California. You should ask yourself how many Red Hot Chili Peppers songs you can name off the top of your head that aren't about sex, drugs or California. Go ahead and check out "Especially In Michigan," "Warlocks" or "Readymade" and try not to feel like Mallrats' Brody on "Truth or Date," i.e., "where do you come up with this shit?!"
Maybe in fear that the wrong words will send him back into the black hole of drug addiction, John Frusciante's been hands-off for critics, but he's the real scapegoat for the blasé largesse of Stadium Arcadium. Kiedis is always gonna be Kiedis, and Frusciante should know better. Since sobering up, he's been portrayed as a guitar savant, which, like "T.I. is an amazing M.C." isn't so much a carelessly parroted fallacy as it is an overstatement that is more a reflection on their competition. Both are gifted technicians who are clearly stuck in holding patterns three albums in the making. Frusciante still has a way with a sprightly funk lick and Hendrix-ian phrases, but he relies on melodic progressions so shop-worn, Mel Bay deserves songwriting credits. The glowing choruses that have catapulted RCHP Mk. II to higher status than ever before are attributable to Frusciante, but they're all starting to seem like minor variations on the same theme, leaving Stadium Arcadium's many potential singles feeling played-out after the first listen.
Boxed into a near constant four-chord grid, Flea and Chad Smith work through root-notes and lockstep patterns, generally sounding bored out of their skulls. Stadium Arcadium is more than listenable when they're in funky monks or mellow gold mode, but cross the DNA and you've got yourself a pocket full of kryptonite. Who knew that if you turned down the BPM on old Chili Peppers records, you'd end up with a jam band? Recidivist workouts like "Hump De Bump" and "Warlocks" work the white boy wiggle that should be painfully familiar to anyone that has spent time in a state university dorm room.
It's not like mid-tempo Chili Peppers is necessarily a bad thing, and things shape up on the second half, possibly because there's an end in sight. "Make You Feel Better" is the sort of jumpy car-radio stuff in the vein of "The Greeting Song" that they never seem to try enough of. "If," and "Hard To Concentrate" are genuinely pretty and affecting works, in large part because they play with atmosphere and texture, creating legitimate new sounds for the band and a path they'd be wise to follow for say, 45 minutes next time.
During their guest spot on The Simpsons, the Chili Peppers changed the lyrics of "Give It Away" at Krusty the Clown's suggestion from "what I got you gotta get and put it in you" to "what I'd really like to do is hug and kiss you" because "now everyone can enjoy it." It was the best piece of career advice they've ever been given. Stadium Arcadium doesn't so much elevate Red Hot Chili Peppers to the market saturation level of U2 and the Rolling Stones as it confirms that they were already there in the first place. Like these bands, their sense of craft is too developed for them to make a bad album, but they can't really make an interesting one either. They sustain merely "not bad" like it was a tantric trick.
The fact that Stadium Arcadium didn't bloat to its planned 3-CD length is the only proof than anyone had veto power during the recording sessions, but there's almost a tacit agreement that the listener should exercise his own by sending this through the iTunes shredder (as I've said before, putting this on shuffle changes nothing). But even the "there's a great album hiding in here!" cliché doesn't really apply, since if you conducted ten trials of picking fourteen songs at random, you'd end up with ten albums of near equal mediocrity. Still, that's probably the best way to improve an album that, as is, requires the attention you can pay to Revolver three consecutive times.