The phrase “I’m with you” inspires dedication, perseverance, and togetherness, making it rather fitting for the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s 10th studio album. For everything that’s happened in the five years between I’m With You and Stadium Arcadium in 2006, that affirmation means something. In the downtime, bassist Flea studied musical composition, drummer Chad Smith joined professional dad-rock group Chickenfoot, Anthony Kiedis had a son, and guitarist John Frusciante left the band. As fans read news of each event, they wondered if the RHCP would even return.
But soon after Frusciante announced his departure, the band announced that Josh Klinghoffer would take up the mantle of RHCP Guitarist With an Impossible Last Name. Klinghoffer was the logical choice; he was the band’s touring guitarist for their Stadium Arcadium tour, and has been a good friend of Frusciante for years.
In a Rolling Stone interview, Smith maintained that replacing the guitarist was a small matter, but anyone who’s heard a Chili Peppers’ record between 1991 and knows that not the case. A stylized player, Frusciante helped lead the band into new melodic territory, and was a contributor to what many would call some of their best albums. But, by Stadium Arcadium, signs of a split were starting to appear; Frusciante was moving towards a more experimental sound in his solo work while occupying more and more space in the band’s sound.
Accordingly, I’m With You sounds refreshed. Remaining instrumentalists Flea and Chad Smith never lacked for talent, but play the shit out of this album. Flea in particular rushes out of the gate with a killer disco bassline in opener “Monarchy of Roses” and singlehandedly makes second track “Factory of Faith” memorable. Likewise, Smith dominates “Ethiopia”, and contributes a hell of a lot to album centerpiece “Brendan’s Death Song”. That song combines everything that makes the Chili’s work: great guitar work, a tight rhythm section, and a killer melody and lyrical poignancy from Anthony Kiedis.
Even with a new line-up, some things never change. And one of those things is Kiedis being a drag on the band’s efforts. As far as hit or miss frontmen go, Kiedis is almost in a league of his own; a middling song instrumentally with a good Kiedis performance can still be a top notch song, but if he strikes out, everyone strikes out. He sticks mostly to singing for I’m With You, but raps occasionally, such as on throwback “Look Around”, and to great effect on “Even You Brutus?” Meanwhile, “Did I Let You Know” sinks, and he (and the rest of the band) drift through less impressive songs like “Meet Me At the Corner”.
So how does new kid Josh Klinghoffer do? His tone isn’t too far from Frusciante’s, neither is his rhythm playing. But as a lead guitarist, Klinghoffer takes a more restrained approach: he doesn’t solo often, and when he does, the result feels more like a quick jam with Flea than an outright Rock Solo. That’s not to say that he can’t get loud when he wants to, “Goodbye Hooray” and “Look Around” feature him prominently both alone and in a strong instrumental interlude. Give him another album to sink his teeth into, but turn him up in the mix next time, because he’s mixed lower than Frusciante’s quietest overdubs ever were.
I’m With You suffers the same flaws that every RHCP album since 1991 have faced. The pacing is absolutely horrible (how do you kill the momentum built with two great songs? Put “Annie Wants a Baby” right afterward), Rick Rubin’s production is sterile, and it’s over-long. Much like fellow alt. rock veterans Foo Fighters, the measuring stick for a good RHCP album vs a bad one is the success to filler ratio. For I’m With You‘s part, it’s not that there aren’t songs that pull you in, it’s that there are too few that do. It’s frustrating that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been in the game for almost 30 years, but can’t let go of those 2 or 3 duds that keep holding their albums back. Three stars out of five.
tl;dr: 10 albums in, and the band is still holding steady. 3/5.