If you look at the history of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and compare it to the history of one John Anthony Frusciante, you might draw some interesting conclusions. Before Frusciante joined RHCP as their lead guitarist in 1989, the band trafficked in a kind of hardcore punk style that appealed to absolutely no one who didn’t brush their teeth to hardcore punk. Once Frusciante joined the band, he helped them record Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The former was a badass piece of funk-rock that went Platinum, and the latter was one of the best albums of the last twenty years. Then Frusciante developed a really bad drug habit and left the band, leaving them to record One Hot Minute, which sucked, in 1995. By 1998 he had kicked the habit and returned to the band just in time to record Californication, By the Way, and Stadium Arcadium – you know, the albums that got you through high school – in less than a decade. And now he’s gone again. The story of 2011’s I’m With You, then, is how the coolest alternative rock band in the world will get by without him.
The band responded to Frusciante’s departure by hiring Josh Kinghoffer, an experienced session guitarist who had toured with the band before. The first thing you hear on I’m With You is some acid-rock feedback off Klinghoffer’s guitar. ”Monarchy of Roses” is a perfect opening statement – Klinghoffer is letting us know that a new guitarist has arrived. Frusciante’s riffs could cut diamonds; Klinghoffer’s sound like they belong to Queens of the Stone Age. When Flea’s bass line joins Chad Smith’s pounding drums in time for Anthony Kiedis’ chorus, you get a fresh-sounding but somehow totally vintage Chili Peppers song. Flea takes over on the follower “Factory of Faith”, as the world’s preeminent rock bassist is wont to do. Then Chad Smith turns in the best performance of his career on “Brendan’s Death Song”, ending a very promising first movement.
But “Brendan’s Death Song” does something it shouldn’t: it sets a tone. Smith pretty much runs the show on this album. His drums are turned way up on every song, and Flea’s bass gets buried in the process. (Until his insane solo on “Goodbye Hooray”, he’s a non-entity for songs on end.) Smith’s dominance is weird and troubling because he has always been the worst member of the band. This is his best album as a Pepper, but as a fan I don’t really care how good he sounds. If I’m watching a football game, I’m happy if my team’s tight end has a great game. But I’m a lot happier if my quarterback and running back do the same.
Smith’s emergence can only be attributed to Klinghoffer’s weakness. After the first few songs, he stops being himself and starts trying to be Frusciante. He can’t do it, and the whole band knows it. When I listen to the album I can’t help but think that Frusciante would have never let Smith get away with what he did to this record. The tight end does not call the fucking plays. When you’re the lead guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you have a responsibility to park your ass at the front of the stage and take over. Klinghoffer acts like a rhythm guitarist on this album, and most of the songs are instantly forgettable as a result.
I’m With You isn’t a terrible record. “Meet Me at the Corner”, “Goodbye Hooray”, and “Police Station” (until its infuriating piano solo) are all standouts. It’s just Chili Peppers-lite. Kiedis et al wouldn’t let Klinghoffer be Klinghoffer and instead asked us to pretend that Frusciante never left. You could call that an act of devotion to fans who have waited five years for a new album. But I think it’s more like an act of forgivable cowardice.