Red Hot Chili Peppers / Blink 182 – Review

11 Jul

Perhaps the essence of rock n roll is youthful energy. 90 percent of the great albums were made by groups of artists in their first decade of existence, and it’s about the only art form where that’s true. Film makers and writers tend to peak later in their career, great painters and photographers go on having acclaimed periods long in to old age. Even other types of musicians and composers – blues, jazz, classical, opera – have a longer shelf life than rock n roll bands. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, listening to new albums by two bands who were once the embodiment of youthful rock n roll. What balance can be made? Are you able to compromise those youthful virtues with experience and maturity? Is that even desirable when so much of what initially made the band great was intrinsically linked to youth?

Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Blink 182 were always more defined by their age than most. Bratty, juvenile pranksters with an appetite for mum jokes and cock socks – it’s kind of ironic that they’ve lasted longer than many of their peers. And to give them credit, they’re doing a pretty good job of sticking around – name me any other mid 90s band currently getting playlisted on the defiantly youth targeted and focus grouped Radio 1? Both bands have recently headlined Reading and Leeds, which remain the festivals of choice for first timers. They are the heritage bands it’s actually credible to like. And they aren’t coasting on greatest hits either – young fans of these bands are just as likely to be singing the new songs as the old ones. Say what you want about the far cooler Blur, Stone Roses or Noel Gallagher, but their recent shows were 90% steered towards past glories. No, Blink and the the Chili Peppers have been embraced by a young, predominantly alternative, audience as living, breathing, functional, working rock groups.

There is no doubt that this current positioning was achieved largely because of good timing, excellent lead singles and a whole lot of canny PR. Without ‘Dark Neccesities’ or ‘Bored to Death’, without an appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke or a slot on Good Morning America, not to mention a long and stealthy build up, Blink 182 and Red Hot Chili Peppers would probably have as much credibility with teenagers and Sum 41 or Faith No More. ‘Dark Necessities’ and ‘Bored to Death’ are so good because they use the darker edges of the bands back catalogues as springboards, to remind us that these bands have always had a mature side. So ‘Bored to Death’ riffs off ‘Adam’s Song’s chords and despondency whilst tonally and melodically ‘Dark Necessities’ updates ‘Otherside.’

If the singles work because they are fine continuations of very specific threads in the bands’ back catalogues, then the other songs falter because they seem uncertain of how how they fit in with the heritage. Stick? Twist? Most of the songs on ‘The Getaway’ and ‘California’ end up in no man’s land.

The good thing is that both ‘The Getaway’ and ‘California’ are positive steps taken after a period of great change. This is the Chili Peppers first album without Rick Rubin at the helm and their second without the irreplaceable John Fruscante. It is by quite some distance their most sonically ambitious album to date and it exudes a satisfied mid-life contentment. Meanwhile, ‘California’ is the first Blink album without Tom Delonge, whose distinctive, yelping vocal tone remains inimitable. Remaining members Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus recruited the dependable Matt Skiba and got to work with John Fieldmen, the natural successor to their usual producer Jerry Finn who sadly died a couple of years ago. Like ‘The Getaway’, California is an ambitious and optimistic update of the band’s signature sound.

Both records display an ambition that is reassuring for old fans like myself. ‘California’ in particular is melodically focused and has clear aims to reach a wide audience. Songs like ‘She’s Out of Her Mind’ and ‘Rabbit Hole’ definitely trace the line back to ‘Enema of the State’s’ exuberant and catchy singles but they also use modern production gloss and so become more palatable for the mainstream. Blink’s traditional punk fan base may find that disconcerting but I grew up listening to Blink on the radio and I continue to admire their populist streak. RHCP on the other hand are less successful to this end, simply because ‘Dark Necessities’ aside, nothing here scans as pop dynamite (and it’s not through lack of trying). Their desire and ambition cannot be faulted but the Chili Peppers have ultimately put together their weakest collection of songs in nearly 30 years.

I’ve always been defensive of the Chilli Peppers. Certain patronising critics are to quick to lump them in with certain other mundane stadium rock bands, when actually the Chili Peppers were always far more quirky and interesting than they were given credit for. They also remain an important gateway band for lots of teenagers. Think of how many people got in to George Clinton, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix because of them. What they lack in innovation or seriousness, they make up for with far more rare qualities: enthusiasm, passion, dedication, a sense of humour and individuality. Nobody else sounds like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, believe me, people have tried; they always end up looking ridiculous. On ‘The Getaway’ those qualities seem somehow diminished. With its sombre remodelling, the record scans as actually less distinctive and more traditionally, and blandly, alternative. I’ve always loathed Danger Mouse’s bone-dry, neutered production style and I feel that here the Chili Peppers have become something of another faceless product on his factory line.

Still, I would take this record’s flawed but ambitious sound over ‘I’m With You’s tired, Rick Rubin on cruise control, production. And there are songs where it pays off. The funkier, tightly wound disco numbers like ‘Go Robot’ and ‘Detroit’ are interesting renovations of the classic RHCP sound. It’s the slower ballads, of which there are many, that let the band down. The likes of ‘Sick Love’, ‘The Hunter’ and ‘Dreams of a Samurai’ are certainly accomplished and well composed but they’re also too watery, too fragile and lack the emotional wallop we’re used to getting from a Chilli Peppers power ballad. Sonically these songs are ‘vibey’ and nuanced but does that matter when there’s no emotional connection to the music or lyrics? There is also a depressing lack of the ridiculous and the sublime. On their 90s records the Chili Peppers risked all, and whilst they sometimes ended up looking flat out stupid, they also wrote some of the silliest classics in the rock cannon. By playing it serious, the Chili Peppers are actually playing it unusually safe.

So RHCP have created a more dynamic and edgy sounding album without delivering their best material while Blink 182 almost have the problem in reverse. They have written some of their catchiest songs in over a decade but have presented them as polished, PG pop punk. There is none of the edge or spontaneity of their best work. But ‘California’ is still a fun and more-ish album. 16 songs is at least 4 too many but at forty minutes, the album feels surprisingly lean. The melodies are laser focused and the choruses are massive.

It is however disappointing that Blink seem incapable of incorporating humour in a sophisticated way. They have two modes; somber sentimentality as evidenced by the vast majority of tracks, and juvenile crassness (‘Built this Pool’ and ‘Brohemian Rhapsody’). In the end the joke songs play like concessions for the old skool Blink fans and sound unnecessarily tacked on. They are especially jarring considering how dull much of the material is. It would be really nice to hear a modern Blink record that finds a halfway point between juvenilia and maturity. There is a compromise somewhere but Blink don’t even attempt to reach it.

So is it possible for rock n roll groups to prosper in middle age? Neither Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Blink 182 deliver a confident answer and both records suggest that at the very least it’s a complicated situation. Nobody wants ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic’ or ‘Take off your Jacket and Pants’ part 2 when most of the band members are dads. But at the same time what fun are Blink 182 and Red Hot Chilli Peppers as dullards writing about mid life crises? There are plenty of bands doing that already. Somewhere in between there is a hole waiting to be filled (that’s what she said) by these legendary, and still occasionally thrilling, bands.

Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘The Getaway’ – 5.5/10

Blink 182 ‘California’ – 6/10

 

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