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By The Way
Gone, or at least sidelined, is the four-piece purity perfected on Blood Sugar Sex Magik in favour of noodly guitar soundscapes, synths, choral harmonies and full orchestral arrangements
Sam Healy, 12 Jul 2002
“We started focusing on the infinite beauty in joy and love and nature,” effused Anthony Kiedis to Billboard in early June. He was explaining how the Red Hot Chili Peppers dealt with September 11, which happened slap bang in the middle of the recording session for By The Way.
This will give you an idea of the scale of their new album’s aspirations. And of the pitfalls, in terms of music and physics, it has therefore created for itself. Degrees of infinity? Oops.
On the back of their phenomenal recent success, The Peppers were able to assemble a serious crew this time round. In the Red corner, so to speak, we have: Rick Rubin, producer of the re-groundbreaking Californication. Second and seventh of the band’s seven sequential guitarists, John Frusciante. World-class orchestral conductor/arranger Marc Mann. And for good measure, artist/director Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) for the sleeve art.
By The Way clocks in at almost 70 minutes, and it sounds big too. Gone, or at least sidelined, is the four-piece purity perfected on Blood Sugar Sex Magik in favour of noodly guitar soundscapes, synths, choral harmonies and full orchestral arrangements.
The problem – and it’s a biggie – is the songs. 16 tracks of which maybe four, in a pinch, reach the level of memorability of Californication’s lesser gems. The title track and first single is one of these, a chirpy, funky distillation of LA nightlife with a hooksome vocoder break. Another is the genuinely exciting ‘Midnight’, which benefits immensely from Mann’s superb orchestral flourishes. ‘Warm Tape’, an afterthought towards the end of the Herculean running time, is a well-realised synth-driven meander.
The words in general maintain Kiedis’ tendency to fall just short of making sense, but are nonetheless enjoyable for their gently trippy cadences, e.g. “Can I smell your gasoline/Can I pet your wolverine/On the day my best friend died/I could not get my copper clean.”
In many ways this is Frusciante’s album. He’s in fine voice himself, contributing multi-layered backing vocals to almost every track, and unleashes a gale of uncharacteristic guitar and sampler alchemy with confidence and accomplishment. Deeper the pity then, that there is so little edgy melody to anchor this new skill.
The Peppers as dinosaurs? Surely not. Then again, the average age of the members is 40-plus. This is, as Kiedis might phrase it, not particularly infinite, but it’s still pushing on. The band is on (at least) Incarnation Number Four now, and after the death of a founder-member, the ill-starred drafting of Jane’s Addiction axeman Dave Navarro and the heroin-induced fall and rise of Frusciante, there’s plenty of water Under The Bridge.
We have no reason to believe that this hardy and brilliant band is out of juice. It must be said though, that they didn’t squeeze out much for By The Way.