Veteran LA punk-funksters display a hard-earned maturity on their magnum opus
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sound was forged in conjunction with the brilliant producer Rick Rubin on 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Rubin recognised the band’s limitations: Anthony Kiedis’ wobbly, pedestrian voice; the skeletal bass-drum-guitar architecture; the predilection for jive-ass posturing. He compensated by going for audiophile-level sonics, spotlighting the spartan grooves in a white-boy update of the James Brown funk blueprint and miking Kiedis’ voice conversation-close and ultra-dry to bring out its humanity. The approach paid off immediately, while providing a rock-solid foundation for the thematic advances of 1999’s Californicationand the appropriation of classic Cali-pop melodies and harmonies on 2002’s By the Way.
All of which makes Stadium Arcadium the supersized culmination of the Chili Peppers’ artistic journey. Fittingly, it was recorded at Rubin’s Laurel Canyon estate (“the Houdini mansion” to locals), the site of their first collaboration. The setting proved to be inspirational to the bandmembers: at 28 tracks, organised over two CDs bearing the subtitles Marsand Jupiter, the album is Sandinist-ically overwhelming.
Strategically, its lynchpin elements are crammed into the opening track and first single, “Dani California”, as syncopated verses set up a widescreen chorus overdriven by power chords, before rolling into a heated outro during which guitarist John Frusciante’s fuzzed-out soloing takes over. What’s different about the track in terms of the Chili Peppers’ low-rider oeuvre is its arena-rock dynamic, with Kiedis’ tattered-denim tenor in the eye of the storm rather than filling the foreground, as in the past.
The bravura performance provides the first indication that this will be Frusciante’s show. Two tracks later, on “Charlie”, the guitarist honours the funk with a perfectly struck JB’s-style metronomic rhythm, while the following “Stadium Arcadium” opens into contemplative atmospherics in the manner of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. “Especially In Michigan” finds Frusciante working in tandem with The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez as the two players set off a flurry of contrasting tones, including Brian May-style harmony guitars. Thereafter he evokes Hendrix (“Wet Sand”), Clapton (“She Looks To Me”) and British blues (“Readymade”). Throughout the two-hour-plus epic, Frusciante sounds like he’s been waiting all his life to pull out his full arsenal of licks and effects, transforming what otherwise might have been an interminable monochrome exhibition into an extended, frequently thrilling fireworks display.
There’s more to recommend Stadium Arcadium than the unleashing of Frusciante, jaw-dropping as it is. The songs with real staying power tend to be muted, nuanced pieces like “Wet Sand,” “Hey,” “She Looks to Me” and, most of all, “Hard to Concentrate,” wherein Kiedis puts aside the non-sequiturs and evinces unabashed tenderness amid intricate hand percussion, Flea’s mesmerising high-on-the-frets bass pattern and Frusciante’s E-bow washes. Not only is the track flat-out gorgeous, it bespeaks a new-found serenity, making Stadium Arcadium the Chili Peppers’ most life-affirming work, even as it explores the apocalyptic anxieties of the age we live in (“Desecration Smile,” “Animal Bar,” “Death Of A Martian”).
The album may be massive, but it’s intimate as well, thanks in part to the wise decision not to pile on the overdubs. At base it’s the document of a band playing in a room— a deftly balanced amalgamation of more and less from a band that can now be legitimately described as unique.
By Bud Scoppa