In a recent editorial by Chuck Klosterman, the pop culture enthusiast discusses a new system he’s created, alongside friend Bill Simmons, which allows music fans to assess the value of a particular musician within the scope of a band. He calls it the “Rock VORM,” which takes itself from the more agreeably quantifiable baseball statistical method, labeled VORP, an acronym for “Value Over Replacement Player.” Over a six-prong list, which includes the member’s songwriting, sonic contribution, visual impact, live performance, attitude, and intangibles, a musician is assigned a numerical, for lack of a better word, worth — all out of 100 total points a band receives. It’s a little technical, but the ideology behind it makes sense.
To make his point, Klosterman used The Strokes’ Albert Hammond, Jr. as an example. After all of the “crazy math,” the fashionable guitarist received a Gross Rock VORM (GRV) of 27, while his Adjusted Rock VORM (ARV) was settled at 5.4. Now, arguably, this is all speculative thinking, but it seems all too fitting when discussing the Red Hot Chili Peppers at present, who return with their 10th studio album, I’m With You, and their first without John Frusciante since 1995’s One Hot Minute. In hindsight, Frusciante could garner a GRV of 36 with an ARV of 9.0; in other words, he was an incredibly valuable asset to the group.
But the LA collective has a knack for bouncing back. They’re the kings of rebounding. Frusciante swept in when previous guitarist Hillel Slovak passed away, and Dave Navarro managed to squeeze out a few hits with the boys when Frusciante originally left. Suffice it to say, they’re strong survivors. As Chad Smith told Rolling Stone recently, “We’ve been through the guitar player mill, and here we are again.” Now in lieu of Frusciante comes 31-year-old guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. The result? Anthony Kiedis, Flea, and Smith have an edge again, something their last album — 2006’s James Cameron-sized Stadium Arcadium — lacked.
“Down home country, I rest my face on your bed,” Kiedis yelps on the storybook-geared “Police Station”, which lyrically feels like a recent Bob Dylan track. Okay, so he’s still chatting up troubled, erratic girls, but at least he sounds assured. Behind him, there’s some light piano. You get the idea that the band’s “dabbling” again — which is great. Whereas 2002’s exceptional By the Way felt jarringly creative, it was mostly Frusciante’s doing. On I’m With You, everyone’s pitching in. Outside of Atoms for Peace, Flea hasn’t sounded this authentic in recent memory; on opening track “Monarchy of Roses”, the toothy wunderkind squeezes a decade’s worth of lightbulb-driven disco into one horseback riding bass line. Smith doesn’t let up, either. Years from now, fans will contend that this is certainly his album. Hell, just take one listen to “Goodbye Hooray”. Thanks, Chickenfoot.
So, what about the big elephant in the room, aka Mr. Klinghoffer? Quick answer: He’s the best replacement the band could ever want. Long answer: As a longtime friend of Frusciante, Klinghoffer still holds on to plenty of his past mentor’s work, which lends for an amicable if not confusing listen. On the saucy “Look Around” or the afternoon bender “Meet Me at the Corner”, you can’t help but feel he’s channeling the former guitarist. The wiry antics that recall Hendrix and the flashes of flamenco insinuate that he’s still not ready to be himself, which, admittedly, is probably the smartest decision. (Hey, go ask Navarro.) Still, there’s enough here to reveal Klinghoffer as an individual; you can hear it slightly in the paranoid needlework that supports “Factory of Faith” or those island-roasted acid strokes that lead “Did I Let You Know”.
What hurts I’m With You is what has plagued the last few Chili Peppers releases: Kiedis’ vocal tones. It’s unfair to think he’d still knock out melodies like those in “Power of Equality” or “Fight Like a Brave”. It’s just not realistic. But this two-pitch serving tires fast — especially for 60 minutes. Lyrically, he may be sharper, but melodically he comes off as increasingly predictable. Sometimes it works (“Brendan’s Death Song”, “Look Around”); other times it dulls the song (“Annie Wants a Baby”, “Dance, Dance, Dance”). Even when he skews left field, like say on “Even You Brutus?”, he innately clicks back into the same ol’ funk, no pun intended.
It’s because of this that I’m With You feels slighted. Instrumentally, it’s one of the stronger efforts from the band, but altogether it doesn’t do enough. Kiedis is looking in the right direction — there’s nary a use of the word “California”, thank god — but he’s still playing it safe. Actually, it might not even be a comfort thing; it could simply be that he’s worried about fixing something that commercially isn’t broken. Or maybe it’s something else. In the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview, the 48-year-old frontman discusses Klinghoffer’s work ethic, stating, “We’ll play a song, and I’ll think, ‘Fuck that is so good.’ Then I’ll look over, and [Klinghoffer is] kicking his equipment. He’ll hear one itty-bitty thing that didn’t go right with his pedals. It felt so good to me. But he wants to get it more correct.” Perhaps Kiedis should subscribe to this brand of insight. Could you imagine what that would do to Klinghoffer’s GRV? Unreal.
Essential Tracks: “Police Station”, “Brendan’s Death Song”, “Look Around”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.