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The record, a double album, doesn’t always live up to the sum of the parts. Like the Stones, U2 and REM, the Chilis can often seem like victims of their own longevity and familiarity. The best songs on this collection are inevitably the ones where they venture out of their own comfort zone.
Peter Murphy, 24 May 2006
The crucial step in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1990s resurrection shuffle was a shift from the realm of funk-metal dynamics into songwriting workshop and development. Not least among the resulting side benefits was a license to get eclectic and sample the smorgasbord afforded by their geographical location: Cali soft rock, Beach Boys harmonies, 80s atmospheres, flamenco and San Diego style ska-punk.
It was a move that bore copious fruit, of both the artistic and commercial varieties. The band achieved absolute media saturation on the back of By The Way, a live album, DVD and Anthony Kiedis’ autobiography, pushing ubiquitousness to its limit. Forsooth, even the most accidental punter could have caught them a half dozen times over the last five years.
For an encore they’ve returned to Rick Rubin’s haunted house in the Hollywood Hills, location of their watershed Blood Sugar Sex Magik album. The result often feels more like a retreat – in the military rather than spiritual sense – than a regrouping.
It’s a testimony to the band’s ability to subjugate individual ego to the betterment of the collective good that Stadium Arcadium often sounds like four solo albums painstakingly spliced and sequenced into one set. But there too lies the rub. The record, a double album, doesn’t always live up to the sum of the parts. Like the Stones, U2 and REM, the Chilis can often seem like victims of their own longevity and familiarity. The best songs on this collection are inevitably the ones where they venture out of their own comfort zone. Hidden away in the middle of the second disc, ‘Make You Feel Better’ bites harder than most of the material here, a 60s janglealong whose simplicity paradoxically makes the band sound like they’re actually being challenged. ‘Animal Bar’ too boasts a lovely melody, garnished with guitarist John Frusciante’s simulated synth atmospheres. Such tunes suggest that inside the pumped musculature, there’s a cute little pop group trying to get out. ‘Dani California’ is the exception, a song that manages to sound like classic Peppers, only fresher, distinguished by a sort of heavy-lidded Tom Petty languor and the first of many, many scalding guitar breaks.
This listener likes it best when they’re rewriting Led Zeppelin II (‘Slow Cheetah’,‘Desecration Smile’, ‘If’) or generally playing it moody (‘Strip My Mind’, ‘Hard To Concentrate’). As ever, the incurably curious Frusciante dazzles with the range and diversity of his ideas (‘Especially In Michigan’ entails more acts of stylistic ventriloquism than all the young dudes can muster over an entire album) and Flea remains a devilishly inventive bass player, his and Chas’s restless pulses underpinning tunes like ‘C’mon Girl’, which hinges on a variation of the juddering sequencer-imitating bassline employed on their live cover of Summer and Moroder’s ‘I Feel Love’.
But virtuosity can only get you so far. More than once on this record (‘Tell Me Baby, ‘She Looks To Me’, ‘Storm In A Teacup’) the foursome fly perilously close to self-parody. If the sheer range of By The Way was undeniably impressive, this time out they’ve leaned more heavily on the patented RHCP formulae – funky drummer backbeat, dreamy vocal, powerchord surge, bold chorus, hot guitar break and fade. Kiedis’ limitations as a vocalist can be trying over the duration, recycling melody arcs and lyrical ideas (SA could at some points be subtitled More Songs About Coke And California, replete with all too apposite Lindsey Buckingham solos).
Great acts are distinguished not by consistency, but a willingness to sabotage themselves in the search for something new. They’ve got to pull something a tad more unprecedented out of the bag to keep their third act from suffering diminishing returns. That’s the challenge for Red Hot Chili Peppers next time out.