There may be nothing more disquieting than the sound of a touchy-feely Anthony Kiedis. On the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute (Warner Bros.), the same man who has worn only a strategically placed sock on stage sounds as if he’s taken a slew of sensitivity courses at the local junior college. ”Take me home/I need repair,” he croons to his lover in one song; in another moment, he laments, ”You never knew this/But I wanted badly for you to requite my love.” It’s the post-Clarence Thomas hearings Kiedis, a caring man for the mid-’90s trying to get in touch with his feminine side (and maybe score along the way).
With the Chili Peppers, such cynicism is completely warranted. For most of the past decade, the band perpetuated an image of rock’s most debauched, horny party animals. Their music — a beer-drenched mix of white-boy rapping, popping bass lines, and metal power chords — was equally unsubtle and indiscreet. With a few rare early exceptions (the languid psychedelia of ‘87’s ”Behind the Sun,” for instance), it was, at worst, the musical equivalent of date rape.
Perhaps that boisterousness prevented the band from breaking through during its early days. But by the dawn of the grunge takeover, the public was primed to accept the Chili Peppers’ hyperactive sound, and the band delivered the goods on 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. More than just a commercial breakthrough, it was an aesthetic leap as well. Thanks to producer Rick Rubin, who has helped liven up everyone from Mick Jagger to Tom Petty, it alternated rap funk thrashers that finally delivered the hooky goods with gentle musings like the ballad ”Under the Bridge.”
Rubin is back behind the control board for the long-delayed, much-labored-over One Hot Minute, but both he and the group must have realized that they couldn’t merely re-create their sound. In the four cataclysmic years since Blood helped the Chili Peppers seize their moment in the sun, plenty of acts have picked up the band’s surf-punk virility. So the Peppers and Rubin opted for something a little different. One Hot Minute wails and flails like a mosh-pit workout tape, but it also has moments of outright subtlety and maturity.
Kiedis’ sensitive-guy lyrics (which could well be a con job) and the downplaying of his hand-me-down hip-hop shtick are the first indications that something new is brewing. The music is the giveaway, though. In Blood songs like ”Under the Bridge” or ”Give It Away,” the band started learning that less is more in terms of number of notes played per bar. The lesson continues on One Hot Minute. Former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, the latest in a long line of Chili Peppers ax stranglers, can pound out the squiggly licks with the best of them (check out ”Coffee Shop,” the album’s best slice of sledgehammer rock). But he also has an airier, lighter style than his predecessors, resulting in understated songs (particularly during the album’s second half) that have an effortless, breezy quality. ”Aeroplane,” a paean to the joys of making music, even jams in one of pop’s most cloying clichés — a kiddie choir — and makes it go down easy.
Which isn’t to say that Kiedis has turned celibate. In the title song, he sings about taking a bike ride with a female companion that turns into a seduction. Yet for once, he keeps his boorish tendencies under control. When he talks to his lover about getting ”in the same place/At the same time” in ”Falling Into Grace,” he sounds nearly spiritual.
Becoming a deeper human being isn’t, of course, an overnight process. There’s still something perpetually adolescent about the Chili Peppers —this is a band that still thinks yelling ”ohhhhh…s – t!” several times in one song is funny. On One Hot Minute, Kiedis’ attempts at cosmic philosophy often trip up on hippie-dippie sentiments (”entire lifetime flash before me/In a loving stream”), while the ”Bridge”-style ”My Friends” tries to be a collective hug for all his troubled pals. A few times, as on the all-moshed-up-with-nowhere-to-go single ”Warped,” they fall back on tired frat-funk flop sweat. And some of these songs last a little too long and could have benefited from a trimming.
Still, how many rock bands, alternative or otherwise, sound better after more than a decade? Not many, which makes the growing pains of One Hot Minute seem like well-earned merit badges. And who knows — maybe the group will start wearing enough clothes so that they’ll have some place to pin those badges, too. B+