Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Red Hot Chili Peppers Comes Close To A Perfect Album With By The Way!

The Good: Vocals, Duration, Instrumentals, Lyrics
The Bad: Frontloaded
The Basics: Surprisingly diverse, By The Way resonates still because Red Hot Chili Peppers experiment musically while keeping the lyrics tight and intriguing.

Not every band or musical artist has it in them, but as I continue through the repertoire of Red Hot Chili Peppers, it seems like they have a powerfully close near-miss with perfection with their album By The Way. The rock/pop album is one of Red Hot Chili Pepper's most articulate albums and it has a lot to offer listeners, not the least of which are a number of truly amazing tracks that never appeared on the radio, nor on their Greatest Hits album. In fact, track to track, By The Way is easily the most intriguing Red Hot Chili Peppers album I've yet heard.

That said, it is not quite perfect. The last half of the album is somewhat more murky and unmemorable than the first half, which is great single after great single. The frontloaded nature of the album makes it somewhat less memorable as the album goes on and it suffers slightly upon multiple replays. Even so, By The Way is close enough to endorse eagerly and recommend anyone who likes pop-rock pick up a copy. After some of the straight-out weirdness of Californication, By The Way stands as an emotionally open album that presents a more experimental side of Red Hot Chili Peppers.

With sixteen songs clocking out at 69:19, By The Way is distinctly the work of Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band wrote all of the songs and they sing all of the words and play most of the instruments. While the album was not produced by the band, it was produced by Rick Rubin, whom the band had collaborated with before. One suspects they would not have done that if they did not like the results.

By The Way is a surprisingly pleasant mix of pop and rock songs and is arguably the most friendly album to those who like what they hear from Red Hot Chili Peppers on mainstream radio. In fact, the more pop-dance "The Zephyr Song" was played on mainstream radio stations when the album was released, while "By The Way," "Can't Stop," and "Universally Speaking" were singles largely played only on rock stations. Those who liked the radio hits from Californication but were turned off by the heavier rock songs on that album are likely to find By The Way (the album) much more accessible.

Part of the reason for this is that Red Hot Chili Peppers experiment with their sound on almost every track on By The Way. "Midnight," for example utilizes a string section and has more of a dramatic, epic quality to it, as if it were a ballad from a major motion picture. Similarly, "I Could Die For You" is a quiet, melancholy ballad that is very different from the up-tempo rock tracks like "By The Way" (the single) or "Throw Away Your Television." There is even a song that seems like Red Hot Chili Pepper's parody of a Country-Western or folk song with "Cabron," which has a very Western sound and feel to it.

In addition to the songs that have more of a traditional guitar, bass, drums sound to them, Red Hot Chili Peppers open up more with the keyboards and synthesizers on some of their tracks on By The Way. "The Zephyr Song" has more of a psychedelic dance quality to it because of the keyboards Frusciante is playing. As well, Flea makes his bass the dominant instrument on the amazing and troubling "Don't Forget Me" which makes it a much more murky and unsettling song. Of course, on that one, the lyrics go a long way to helping to establish the sense of psychological horror. As Flea slowly fingers the melody on the bass, lead singer Anthony Kiedis moans out "I'm a dance hall dirty breakbeat / Make the snow fall up from underneath your feet / Not alone, I'll be there / Tell me when you want to go / I'm a meth lab first rehab / Take it all off / And step inside the running cab / There's a love that knows the way . . . I'm an inbred and a pothead / Two legs that you spread / Inside the tool shed / Now we know it all for sure" ("Don't Forget Me") and the song becomes arguably the best Red Hot Chili Peppers song to never become a single.

Vocally, By The Way is a weird triumph for Kiedis and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While on songs like "Universally Speaking" and "Minor Thing" the instrumentals become quite frenetic, the vocals are universally clear. Indeed, this album has Red Hot Chili Peppers prioritizing the lyrics and in this way the band and the album make a real statement. "Tear" has Kiedis, Flea and Frusciante harmonizing beautifully and with Flea's trumpet the song sounds more mature than most of the upbeat songs. Thematically, it follows the rest of the album with a more contemplative refrain of "All in all and I'm / Loving every rise and fall / The sun will make and I will take / Breath to be sure of this / In the end and then / All will be forgiven when" ("Tear"). On this album, the men seem more vocally harmonious and it lends itself to the varied sounds of the tracks quite well.

And while some of the latest songs on the album, like "Warm Tape" might be less memorable, they fit the overall quality of the album and By The Way ends strong. The album replays well because it opens so energetically and the quartet seems content to try new things. For those who only like the radio sound of Red Hot Chili Peppers, By The Way offers a nonthreatening way to try something new - whatwith the instrumental and thematic diversity of the album - without getting something harder than those who like the more mainstream sound would like. This is not to say that the mainstream rock songs like the title track aren't good, but they are available on other albums and what makes By The Way truly rock is that the non-radio hits actually are often as strong as the ones that were released as singles.

I love the sound of "The Zephyr Song" and "Don't Forget Me" sends a chill through me on every listen (I've heard it about fifty times). The lowest point is probably "Warm Tape" because it leaves less impression with the listener.

For other works by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, please check out my reviews of:
"Otherside" (single)
Greatest Hits And Videos
The Best Of Red Hot Chili Peppers
Stadium Arcadium


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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