BY XAVIER JOHNSON
It’s pretty surprising that many of the hits the Red Hot Chili Peppers are known for are from the 90’s. Listen to “Under the Bridge,” which dropped in 1992, which still sounds completely fresh thirty years later. The pioneering funk rock band sounded like nothing else that was being released at the time. This timeless quality has allowed the group to continue to pack arenas and top the charts. Even when rock music was fading out of the top of the food chain in favor of hip-hop and EDM-influenced pop music, the Chili Peppers remained a force in the music landscape.
They have become an essential part of Americana. Classics like “Snow (Hey Oh)” and “Dani California” still regularly receive radio and streaming play. Countless sports arenas and television shows lean on the group’s distinct brand of rock. They have transcended the genre, becoming a cultural touchstone as the stylings of Bob Dylan or the spaghetti western.
With 13 albums under their belt, the band has had a fairly consistent lineup for the majority of its history. Frontman vocalist Anthony Kiedis is backed by a tight rhythm section held down by bassist Michael Balzary, better known as Flea, and drummer Chad Smith. Providing the melodic depth is guitarist John Frusciante. All nearing or in their 60’s, they are a far cry from the young and rambunctious group that released Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991. For a couple of records in the 2010’s, their age could be felt through the music and not in the best ways. Sometimes a band with nothing left to prove starts to create its best music, devoid of expectations or pressure. However, in the case of Red Hot Chili Peppers, there was a distinct feeling of complacency that permeated through their music. In 2011’s I’m With You and 2016’s The Getaway, their music lacked the creative verve that ideally is the band’s trademark.
The band has laid dormant for the past six years which was certainly prolonged by the pandemic. Coming out of hibernation, it seems like the group’s creative spark came back. With the return of Frusciante, who left the band in 2006 to focus on solo projects, the longtime core was back together. When making their comeback, they nestled into Rick Rubin’s Malibu studio and pounded out 50 songs, originally intending to release one behemoth 40-track record, but the label pushed back. A compromise came and the product of these studio sessions became both albums released this year: Unlimited Love and Return of the Dream Canteen.
Unlimited Love dropped back in April and is certainly the safer of the two records. The songs lack the dynamism that drives the listener through the 17-tracks. It had more energy than the previous two albums, but the sum still didn’t feel like it captured the band’s early magic. The second effort released on Oct. 14, Return of the Dream Canteen, is an exciting return to form for the legendary quartet, filled with youthful energy and fresh ideas that haven’t been heard from the band in over a decade. While the record isn’t perfect, it has all the qualities that made the group’s early work unique.
Immediately the first track “Tippa My Tongue” flies out the gate with a tight, funky rhythm and Kiedis’s signature eccentric vocals. It’s a high-energy, expressive song with a killer bridge in the middle where the rhythm section shines. It channels a lot of what makes the Chili Peppers great: strong grooves, excellent musicianship, and a truly unique sound. A big part of this formula is Kiedis, the idiosyncratic frontman that has become a source of division within the band’s fanbase. For some he adds unpredictability to the group and enables the more outlandish qualities of the band to flourish. Other fans view him as the weak link of the band being unable to match his stellar bandmates when it comes to musicianship.
Many of the criticisms ring true. There’s a fine line Kiedis walks between being wonderfully quirky and a parodied version of himself. On “Reach Out” his vocals are wonderful and dynamic, fitting into one of the record’s best tracks. He nails both the crushing, loud choruses and the soothing verses. It’s one of the more impressive vocal performances Kiedis has had in quite a while. Another standout moment for the frontman is on “My Cigarette,” a chill jam where he gets to flex his singing chops. His voice stands out as its own rhythmic instrument and emotional vehicle.
However, Kiedis is also at his worst on this album too. The closer “In the Snow” is nice, but the spoken word sections kill the song. Kiedis’s delivery just doesn’t work and hurts an otherwise solid effort. Another low point is in “Afterlife,” which is a step back compared to the wild ideas present elsewhere. It’s a standard Red Hot Chili Peppers pop track with a catchy chorus and summer-y timbre hurt by a phoned-in performance from Kiedis. Two so-so tracks on a 17-song record is still an excellent batting average.
Frusciante is incredible throughout the album. His more in-the-pocket moments are strong like on “Shoot Me a Smile” and “The Drummer” where he just nails it with the guitar tone and melodic choices by bringing in that signature funky skank rhythm or delivering golden notes that dot the track. He gets his time to shine on “Eddie,” a tribute to the great Eddie Van Halen who passed away in 2020 while Return of the Dream Canteen was being recorded. It’s an excellent tune that’s elevated by Frusciante’s solo that sounds like few he’s done before. He shreds on the guitar, making it wail and scream just like the track’s namesake would. It’s not often he gets the opportunity to flex his skills in that manner outside of a live setting.
The rhythm section is as great as ever. Smith remains one of the best drummers in rock music. His playing is tight and provides the perfect foundation for Frusciante and Flea to build upon; from his rapid-fire beats on the chorus of “Fake as Fu@k” to the proggy “The Drummer” there isn’t a moment where Smith doesn’t shine. The same can be said for Flea, one of the greatest bass players the genre has seen. He acts as both a melodic and rhythmic force throughout the album, making the tracks feel vibrant with his bright tone and inspired fills that really elevate each track. Flea’s standout moment comes on “Peace and Love” and his infectious bass line guides the song along its brisk pace and unassailable vibe.
Return of the Dream Canteen stands as an exciting return for one of rock music’s most storied acts. It’s a record loaded with delightful, easy to listen to songs filled to the brim with style and personality. While there are some low points, the full body of work is some of the strongest delivered by the band in years. It’s good to have the Red Hot Chili Peppers back and sounding inspired.