Nobody who caught the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the mid-80’s imagined that the LA funky punk boys that rapped most of their best songs were going to last for the long-haul. Dancing around the stage in nothing but their socks they were built for speed, not for distance. And not everybody survived (RIP Hillel), but the bass playing funk-meister Flea and rolling, rocking vocalist Anthony Kiedis somehow managed to cheat death and addiction, and kept finding ways to come back bigger, better, and somehow musically stronger. In the late 80’s, the undaunted duo connected with guitarist John Frusciante, and then drummer Chad Smith, and produced “Mother’s Milk,” which delivered the band’s first semi-successful airplay single with “Knock Me Down,” and their now classic rendering of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”
For the next album the quartet teamed up with producer Rick Rubin, best known for breaking the Beastie Boys and Run D.M.C., and together they delivered the band’s breakout album, Blood Sugar Sex Magic, with the surprising hit ballad, “Under the Bridge,” and then went on to win the Hard Rock Performance Grammy for “Give It Away.” By the next year, the band was headlining the touring Lollapalooza Festival, and has gone on to produce numerous hit albums. Frusciante reportedly had his own personal struggles relating to the band’s huge success and addiction, so he’s left only to return the Peppers’ twice that we know of. He was replaced at different times by Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction), and most recently by Josh Klinghoffer, but the band’s creative center, Kiedis and Flea, have kept it together and found ways to deliver a string of hits in “Scar Tissue,” “Californication,” “Dani California,” and “Snow (Hey Oh).”
Here in 2022, Frusciante has rejoined the band (again), and after an album with Danger Mouse they are back under the tutelage of producer Rubin; and the band has delivered again on the strengths they last exhibited working together on the double-disc, Stadium Arcadium (2006). But if we’re going to be honest, the RHCP’s music is built on a formula that shouldn’t work outside the lab; while they are set up like traditional rock quartets in the vein of Led Zeppelin or Bad Co., with a rock-solid rhythm section that holds down the bottom, a rock star of a lead guitarist and a singer with great pipes, they approach music from an altogether different angle. Smith is a solid enough drummer, but Flea is a funk virtuoso who often plays countermelodies to the Kiedis’ vocals, and especially early on was wrestling in the mix with Frusciante’s guitars for dominance and often winning. And, for the longest time, Kiedis was a better fast-talking rapper than an actual singer, his vocals were pretty much an acquired taste on the band’s early efforts, impressive for their energy but not always sweet on the ears. Yet, still, they always had something; on fast, funky numbers the band’s combined strengths worked a strange alchemy, they took no prisoners, and they owned any stage they played on.
What’s amazingly apparent throughout the long 17-song set that is Unlimited Love, are the almost surprising strengths of the band’s songwriting, the growth of Kiedis as a singer, and the still thrilling appeal of Frusciante’s guitar heroics. The album’s opener and first single, “Black Summer” opens on some jazzy guitar chords with a sweet ballad vibe not unfamiliar to fans of “Under the Bridge,” but it quickly builds to a bold, smart chorus around Flea’s bass line, before Frusciante takes the lead and the track builds to a strong conclusion. And, suddenly it’s like, “they’re back!” “Here Ever After” follows, a big brutal funk rhythm meets some harder rock that’s undeniable, but then Flea takes it up another level on “Aquatic Mouth Dance,” and Kiedis’ singing is as smooth and soulful as he can be, while they bring in some NOLA brass to bounce off the cool dance rhythms of Smith.
Lyrically, Kiedis is still singing about blood, sugar, sex, and magik, but on the funky fast rap of “Poster Child,” music fans will have fun name checking all the 70’s and 80’s influences from “Adam Ant to Robert Plant,” dropping nods to everyone from P-Funk, Ramones, Devo, and Talking Heads. “The Great Apes” mixes a fun floating bass melody on the verses, where Kiedis assures us that “superstars don’t do the dishes,” before Frusciante delivers two totally screaming solos, hinting at the band’s harder rock and psychedelic leanings. “She’s a Lover” slides into funky R&B territory, while “These Are the Ways” returns with a big, bold guitar rocker that’s near to a metal progression, with sweeter sing-song verses that offer up a look at the materialistic culture of America, “the sights, the sounds, the smells.”
In another funky rocker, “Whatchu Thinkin’,” Kiedis turns his attention to the way white colonialists ran Native Americans off their land, spurring Frusciante to another rather brutal, howling guitar solo. And that’s the way this album goes, songs are built on a catchy vocal hook, a bold bass line, a soaring guitar line, and the other players rise to the occasion time and again, fleshing out song after song with some moving musicality, vibrant and vital from start to finish. Even the quirkier moments, like “Bastards of Light” and “Veronica,” still work, and move the album forward. Near the end, they turn up the psychedelic vibe on “Let ‘Em Cry” and “The Heavy Wing,” even as they keep things loose and funky. The result is a mature album of solid songs by players that excel throughout, both as individual players and as a tight, kinetic combo. Yes, I said it, the Red Hot Chili Peppers feel like a mature rock band on Unlimited Love, and I’m as surprised to be saying that as they would be to hear it.
“Black Summer” / “These Are The Ways” / “Aquatic Mouth Dance”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
Fishbone / P-Funk Allstars / Primus
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS REVIEW HISTORY
The Getaway (2016)