Sharps & flats

A resurrected John Frusciante establishes the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the premier white-boy party band of the last two decades.

By Seth Mnookin

Published June 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's hard to believe, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers have now been together as long as the Rolling Stones had been when they released "Tattoo You." I say that because when I was a 9-year-old listening to "Start Me Up" on the radio, I wished those old English farts would hang it up already so I could listen to music that really mattered, like Hall and Oates and Dexy's Midnight Runners.

I can't imagine what today's 9-year-olds think about the Chili Peppers. But while the band might not be the transgressive frat-rock icons that they once were, their latest album, "Californication," proves that they're still one of the best, and most versatile, white-boy party bands of the last two decades.

"Californication" reunites guitarist John Frusciante with bassist Flea, singer Anthony Kiedis and drummer Chad Smith. It was Frusciante who, as a teenage wonder boy, was on board for the Red Hots' breakout "Blood Sugar Sex Magic," and his sprawling, slithering, crunching work here shows that his star turn on "BSSM" was no fluke. Unlike Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction, who occupied the Chili Peppers' revolving-door guitar seat for the last five years or so, Frusciante is the perfect foil for the ever-frenetic Flea. The guitarist picks out acid-drenched notes that hover over Flea's bombs on the slowed-down, "Under the Bridge"-type ballad "Scar Tissue." And on the "all jangled up with nowhere to funk" "Parallel Universe," Flea and Frusciante prove that they could have been art-rockers if they wanted.

But we always knew the Red Hots could play; it was more doubtful that they could write. Kiedis, once again sober, believes they can. "I'm in my prime," he sings on the album-opening "Around the World," and for once, it doesn't sound like an empty boast. His sculpted voice is, in fact, one of the best parts of the disc: He harmonizes, he purrs, he moans and he roars, and does it all with more confidence and skill than he ever displayed in the past. On the title track and the falsetto-tinged "Porcelain," he even sounds pretty. Maybe starring in your very own MTV "Biorhythm" special does that to you.

"Californication" is more coherent than past Red Hot efforts. The subject matter, not surprisingly, is California, in all its heartbreaking, sin-inducing, addictive glory. The subject, like the overall effect of the music, doesn't mark a dramatic change of pace for the band. All the old ingredients are there: the nonsense raps, the hyperactive funk, the technical wizardry, the quasi-philosophical ruminations ("Space may be the final frontier/But it's made in a Hollywood basement," Kiedis laments at one point). But the cumulative effect is something more than the sum of its parts. A pair of tunes toward the end of album are particularly impressive: the roiling, anthemic "Savior," on which Frusciante once again shines, and the nasty, psychedelic rap of "Purple Stain."

No longer desperate to prove themselves, playing with a guitarist who does the band justice and realizing that gimmickry is less likely to sell albums than good songwriting (remember those God-awful light-bulb costumes the band sported during Woodstock '94?), Kiedis, Flea and Co. have settled down, grown up and made the album they've been threatening to produce since the late 1980s. Those who have not been fans of the band's party-hardy attitude and endless silliness are not going to have their minds changed now. But for people who still think "Higher Ground," off 1989's "Mother's Milk," is the world's greatest cover, "Californication" is the first true example of how the Red Hots can grow up with their audience.

Since 1981, the Rolling Stones have gone on to previously unknown commercial, if not artistic, heights. While I doubt the Chili Peppers will he headlining stadiums in 2017 -- "BSSM" is no "Exile on Main Street," after all -- "Californication" captures a band that still has new avenues to travel. Being closer in age to Kiedis than Britney Spears, I, for one, wish them all the luck in the world.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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Californication Music