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.
"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."