Spin Control

May 7, 2006



Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Stadium Arcadium" (Warner Bros.) **1/2

Much has been made of the Red Hot Chili Peppers recording their ninth studio album in a house once owned by Harry Houdini, as if magic permeates this double album -- allegedly inspired, like Madonna's recent work, by the Kabbalah. But remember that Houdini spent his career debunking "otherworldly forces" and exposing magic for what it is: craft and illusion. And the Peppers' biggest trick is that they somehow remain chart-topping hit-makers 23 years into a career built on the most meager of talents.

The group's reinvention from bonehead frat-party punk-funksters to radio-friendly balladeers is more unlikely than any since Metallica, which similarly shifted from harsh rocking to oh-so-sensitive serenading as middle age loomed. The Peppers' transformation began with the sudden appearance of ballads on 1990's "Blood Sugar Sex Magik," and the balance has tipped ever more in that direction since: Despite the pointlessly inflated size of this epic release, 18 of the 28 tracks falling into hook-heavy arena sing-along mode a la "Under the Bridge" and "Californication" (whose lyrical subject appears again here in the first single, "Dani California"). This won't make for much of a house party soundtrack, but if you're aiming for a make-out session with a high-school sophomore, it may do the trick.

In any incarnation, the Peppers have never been a sophisticated band. Flea's bass playing may be flashy, but subtle it's not, and Anthony Kiedis is a monotonous singer and a dopey lyricist, plain and simple. But Rick Rubin's production is flawless and seductive, many of the hooks are foolproof, old-school fans can take pleasure in John Frusciante's twisted and fiery guitar solos and, at the end of the day, the Peppers' summer-fun pop is a guilty pleasure as mainstream radio fare goes, and far superior to, say, anything by Kelly Clarkson.


Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere" (Downtown/Atlantic) ***1/2

There's no doubt that Danger Mouse -- a k a Brian Burton, the man who gave us "The Grey Album," the illegal but brilliant combination of Jay-Z's "Black Album" and the Beatles' "White Album" -- is one of the most imaginative producers in hip-hop, while Cee-Lo Green, known to his mom as Thomas Calloway of Atlanta's Goodie Mob, ranks atop the short list of artists forwarding the legacy of psychedelic rap pioneered by De La Soul and the Beastie Boys of "Paul's Boutique." They'd like to keep us wondering about the identity of Gnarls Barkley -- their official label bio portrays "him" as a musical svengali, pal of the late rock critic Lester Bangs, the man who taught Kraftwerk to speak English, and a former lover of Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson -- but that spirit of gleeful absurdity and seductive surrealism permeates the entire collaboration.

Some listeners may be disappointed that none of the other 13 tracks quite match the infectious appeal of the single "Crazy," which has made history on the British pop charts as the first song to debut at No. 1 (where it's now spent five weeks) solely on the basis of download sales. But the whole point of "St. Elsewhere" is that it's a lyrical musing on "sane" vs. "crazy" in a world gone mad, set against a Jackson Pollock-style splatter collage that respects no stylistic boundaries, schizophrenically leaping from an understated electro-pop cover of the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone" to the sultry psychedelic soul of "Who Cares?" to the haunting ballad "Just a Thought," a meditation on suicide that betters the haunting musical vibe of Eminem's "Stan" (with Cee-Lo in the roles of both Marshall Mathers and Dido).

The lyrics and Cee-Lo's rapping aren't on the level of Danger Mouse's production, which is not as much of a problem on a track like "Feng Shui," easily dismissed as a silly toss-off, as it is on "Necromancing," a rap that attempts to play necrophilia for laughs. But Cee-Lo has always shown promise as a convincing if freaky R&B or soul singer -- he's better when he's crooning than when he's rhyming -- and musical ambition and invention this weird yet appealing has to be loudly applauded.


Alejandro Escovedo, "The Boxing Mirror" (Back Porch) ***1/2

While I admire the three bands that made Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo a cult hero for the roots-rock scene -- the Nuns, Rank & File and True Believers -- I've never really connected with his melancholy but lushly orchestrated solo efforts -- until now. Having survived a life-threatening bout with hepatitis C, which inspired the 2004 tribute benefit album "Por Vida," Escovedo has emerged as dark as ever lyrically but ready to rock with a vengeance on his first new studio album in four years, and to that end, he turned to one of his heroes as producer, John Cale.

Those famous Velvets drones and noise-rock assaults are heard to great effect in songs such as "Arizona," "Notes on Air" and "Break This Time," but Cale also makes great use of gorgeous strings (including Chicagoan Susan Voelz's violin) and unexpected synthesizer textures, moving Escovedo out of his rootsy Austin comfort zone into much more exciting sonic terrain, just as Cale's sometimes partner Brian Eno did with Paul Simon on his new album.

At the same time, Escovedo has never sounded better on more conventional fare such as the Mexican-influenced ballad "The Ladder" and the emotional weeper "Died a Little Today," whose lyrics sum up the disc's theme of a man who's learned how to live by coming close to dying: "Gonna learn how to give / Not to simply get by / Or to barely hang on."