Red Hot Chili Peppers “getaway” 25 years after Blood Sugar Sex Magik
You can hear it all the way back on “Backwoods” off of 1987’s The Upfit Mofo Party Plan. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, although being primarily a drum and bass rhythm driven unit, could also crank up the melody along with the hard rock guitar. Then guitarist, the late Hillel Slovak, was actively branching into hard rock licks as well as Jimi Hendrix like solos on tracks like “Fight Like a Brave,” and “Walking Down the Road,” as well as “Backwoods.” When The Chili Peppers returned in a few years with a new guitarist, John Frusciante, and drummer, Chad Smith, 1989’s Mother’s Milk would build upon the rhythm and rock guitar fusion that would lead to some of the best written and sounding rock of the 90s and 00s. 2006’s Stadium Arcadium would take the Chili Peppers to the pinnacle of the type of hard rock guitar that Slovak envisioned and that Frusciante realized. It was a sound that became as identifiable with The Chili Pepper’s sound as Flea’s bass had. With Frusciante’s second departure from the band though, The Chili Peppers would see the front and center hard rock guitar start to overwhelmingly fade into the background. The music on 2011’s I’m With You (and it’s full length compilation album I’m Beside You) would remain unmistakably recognizable as the Chili Pepper’s, but guitarist Josh Klinghoffer’s (friend and understudy of Frusciante’s) work would be regulated to creating atmosphere rather than riffs. The trend is even more evident on the Chili Peppers’ newest release 2015’s The Getaway.
Part of the change in The Chili Pepper’s guitar sound would be the the direct result of a change of producers from I’m With You (and every major Chili Pepper’s major release since just after Mother’s Milk) to Danger Mouse from Rick Rubin. Rubin’s penchant for a stripped down and live sounding production is now legendary amongst music fans, of both the rock and hip-hop persuasions. It’s also instantly recognizable to any rock or hip-hop fan who’s been listening to both genres of popular music over the past 30 years. The changes to the overall songwriting of The Chili Pepper’s which really started on 2002’s By The Way, an album I once described to a friend, after I was privy to an advanced listen, as “an album composed under the influenced one song: ‘Under The Bridge.” The album really was a collection of songs that were much more in tempo with that song than anything else off of Blood Sugar Sex Magik or Californication for that matter. Stadium Arcadium would rectify the lopsidedness of By The Way through it’s sprawling gloriousness, if not glorious excess. Rubin’s mixing would highlight moments of gritty guitar playing, like that heard on Stadium Arcadium’s “She’s Only 18,” that would take The Chili Peppers’ sound as far from “Under The Bridge” or “Zephyr Song” that they could get it and still be recognized as the The Red Hot Chili Peppers sonically. Diversity of sound has always been a hallmark of The Chili Peppers though, and while The Getaway gets The Chilli Peppers as far from Blood Sugar Sex Magik as they have been in the 25 years since that album changed the popular rock music landscape, one has to wonder if it might not be just a little too far away from their masterpiece. Danger Mouse’s production has much more in common with the pop music produced for the masses of headphone listening and car stereo blaring kids than the rock and hip-hop produced for the concert going, live music fan.
Thick bass lines and mechanical sounding (or at least mechanically washed sounding) drums sound much better coming out of a car stereo than live drums or bass do. Continuing with a trend that started back in the 80s and 90s, music is made to play sound systems on, not vice versa. Danger Mouse’s production takes The Chili Peppers sound and morphs it into the soundtrack to your stereo. Songs like “Go Robot” while joyously retaining the type of freaky styley lyrics that Anthony Kiedis is renown for (“you will find your flow when you go robot/I want to thank you and spank you upon your silver skin/Robots don’t care where I’ve been/You’ve got to chose it to use, so let me plug it in), are so smothered in a pop sensible production that it will most likely sound very different live like most of the songs off the also Danger Mouse produced 2014 U2 release Songs of Innocence. U2 sounding different, and even better, live than recorded is the band’s trademark. This is not the case with The Chili Peppers, so the change is sound here is highly dramatic, if not slightly unsettling.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of good tracks on The Getaway, there just aren’t as many that really stand out or aspire to join the ranks of The Chili Pepper’s greatest songs. “Goodbye Angels” is the closest candidate the album has to offering a track that can join The Chili Peppers pantheon of legendary tunes. It actually flirts with being a guitar rock song, while balancing its rhythmic elements. The guitar work remains firmly in the pop realm as opposed to rock though with its repetitive riffs and repeating hooks. “This Ticonderoga” also flirts with a more traditional Chili Pepper’s rock sound. There’s no soloing here, or pretty much anywhere on the album though. This is not because Klinghoffer can’t solo. It’s because the conscious choice to do so has been negated by the band’s decision of direction, at least as far as the music speaks for the band…as it should. Are The Chili Peppers taking the easier, poppier way out? Judging from the songs and the production, it appears so. Still, a pop Chili Peppers song is still much more artistically engaging than a Justin Bieber one, of course. So all isn’t lost, it’s just a little less innovative.
25 years after Blood Sugar Sex Magik, The Chili Peppers still rock, still roll, still bop, and are still funky, just in a different way. It’s a way that might not keep the longest termed fans as happy as they once were, but with Frusciante or not, and with guitar heroics or not, the fundamentals are still there and that makes The Getaway worth the listen, if not the adoration.