Red Hot Chili Peppers

Stadium Arcadium

(Columbia; 2006)

By David M. Goldstein | 30 December 2007

One time while I was at the Outpost, I had been shooting coke and speed, and I ran out of eveything. There comes a point when you want to keep shooting something, even if you’re high, just to get a new rush. Someone had given me a hit of acid and I had a bottle of vodka, so I took the acid, put it in a spoon, poured some vodka in the spoon, dissolved that blotter acid as best I could, and shot the LSD mixed with vodka. It was the first time I ever peaked on acid in one second. And instead of tasting heroin or cocaine or speed in the back of my mouth, I was tasting vodka.

-Anthony Kiedis, Scar Tissue

Betcha William Burroughs never did that. Such bodily disregard is only one of several incidents of abuse within the pages of Anthony Kiedis’s often harrowing, usually hysterical 2004 autobiography Scar Tissue, a book that’s equally amazing for the fact that Kiedis was able to remember any of his young life at all, as well as that somehow he survived it. One of those books that CMG staffer Conrad Amenta accurately described as something that everyone is dying to read, but looks more than a little embarrassing on the shelf, the girlfriend bought me a copy two Hannukahs ago after noticing me leafing through at Barnes and Noble on more than one occasion. T’would be difficult for me to not be somewhat interested in Kiedis’s life story; his propensity for hedonism is legendary, and I was 13 years old when Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik was released.

And really, has any (half-way decent) album been released in the past 15 years that has so tapped into the fantasy mind of a 13-year old boy and/or unsatisfied Midwestern housewife like Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik? I pulled it out yesterday in preparation for writing this review, and while its aged surprisingly well, it hardly brings to mind boxes of Kleenex like it might have 13 years ago. That record contained everything that would be expected to make a pubescent kid’s mind wander, including the virile hero “Sir Psycho Sexy,” “Apache Rose Peacock” with her ‘built-in heater,’ or just the fact that Kiedis references his erection without shame in at least 4 of the 18 songs. The majority of the record simply smacks of a funky decadence that’s undeniably appealing when you’re only just beginning to notice the opposite sex. And “Blood sugar baby! She’s magic! A-sex magic! A-sex magic!” is still the greatest chorus that Kiedis has committed to wax.

But 1995's Dave Navarro ravaged One Hot Minute completely blows (Kiedis nearly admits as much in print), and while 1999's Californication welcomed embattled guitarist John Frusciante back into the fold, and was a major improvement over Minute, overt stabs at maturity prevented it from being as fun as it could have been. 2002 tearjerker By the Way ramped up the wuss factor way too much; the Peppers being seemingly too concerned with their legacy as serious artistes to bother writing any enjoyable songs.

So now we come to Stadium Arcadium, and you’re correct for thinking that it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah for a 22-year old band to release a double studio album, let alone a band considered by many to be little more than a questionably talented group of ass-clowns prone to going shirtless in public. And yet what’s surprising is how modest a double album Stadium turns out to be; no ten-minute epics or discernible concepts or themes, just a sizable batch of mostly 4-minute songs from what I guess the Peppers thought was a particularly fertile (no pun intended) songwriting period. This is the point in the review where yours truly resorts to cliche and alerts the reader that the Peppers could have used some self-editing to cull one album’s worth of quality material from the two presented within. But allow me to qualify that by stating that it would need to be one 78-minute album. Blood Sugar was 74 minutes that would have better stood to be 55, and Stadium clocks in at a little under 120, when it really only needs to be two thirds of that. But a 78 minute record with no filler? How many bands can pull that off? Out of Stadium Arcadium’s 28 songs, I was only able to completely axe nine of them from the iTunes cue, which leads me to believe that the band realized they were on to something here.

That said, this record is hardly going to convert any non-believers, and fervent haters whose distaste for the band lies entirely with Kiedis’s “lyrics” will still find plenty of ammunition here (although as far as the ballads are concerned, I still think the dude’s improved quite a bit). But for anyone who legitimately enjoyed Blood Sugar, and think that they might actually want to purchase this thing, Stadium is unquestionably Red Hot Chili Peppers’ finest release since.

Most of Stadium’s quality stems from the fact that for the first time in awhile, the Peppers sound positively loose, playing up more of the funky-ass leanings that they made their name on while dipping into sentimentality on a far less frequent basis. “Hump de Bump,” “Warlocks,” and “Charlie” are all appealingly mindless grooves that sound like they could have been culled from the Freaky Styley-era (albeit with far more robust production), with a renewed emphasis on Flea’s popping basslines that is most welcome. “Hump de Bump” even features the sprightly horn charts that dotted most of the George Clinton-produced Styley tracks, and “Warlocks” contains a heretofore underutilized clavinet courtesy of Billy Preston (!). Then there’s the Peppers’ trademark ability to take songs that should be completely fucking awful in theory, but somehow end up being the opposite; “She’s Only 18" should be crucified on its title alone, but a ridiculously silly multi-tracked chorus (“knock the world / right off its feet / and right onto its head”), and John Frusciante’s wah-infused, bedroom mirror flexing, guitar solos at the bridge render it one of Stadium’s most satisfying tunes.

Elsewhere, Kiedis has finally learned how to reconcile his sad sack leanings with interesting songwriting, like on “Desecration Smile,” which atones for the lines “all alone all by myself/another girl bad for my health” (oh, do go on!) with a tender acoustic riff and harmoniously rich chorus evocative of The Mamas and The Papas. The vaguely Santana-ish leanings of the excellent title track, “Slow Cheetah” and “Wet Sand” are all further examples of how the band has learned to function within slower tempos without inducing sleep.

So when you’ve proved with “Wet Sand” that you’re adept at navigating a rich, harpsichord-laden ballad akin to a quality Fleetwood Mac song, why squander such good will with a pathetic rewrite of Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song” (“Readymade”) or conclude your album with a spoken word tribute to your bass player’s dead house pet (“Death of a Martian”)? But the good tracks still considerably outweigh the misfires, and Stadium even manages to contain a few that achieve ‘career best’ status. “Animal Bar” is a krautrock tribute that works; “If” is the Peppers’ best attempt at an atmospheric acoustic ballad; and then there’s “Tell Me Baby,” the next single, and if there’s any justice, their biggest chart hit to date. An incredibly catchy, effortless piece of power-pop that’ll probably own the radio for the next six months, it calls to mind Fountains of Wayne attempting a funk song; a proposition which isn’t nearly as ghastly as it sounds.

I can’t help but feel a little sheepish granting recent positive reviews to albums by both the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam for fear of being perceived as a nostalgia hound unable to shake free of the bands he danced to at his Bar-Mitzvah. And little has changed with the Peppers since then; they still know their way around a killer chorus, Kiedis will never hang up the rhyming dictionary, and they’ll never stop writing songs with the word “California” in the title. But Stadium Arcadium is the first post-Blood Sugar Chili Peppers album that actually sounds like it was reasonably fun to make; a source of mindless summer entertainment that people really shouldn’t feel ashamed to enjoy. Eh, for some reason I find this band impossible to completely dislike, despite every bone in my body telling me otherwise. That probably makes me lame. Whatever.