Electric Honey (Capitol/Grand Royal)
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Californication (Warner Bros.)
In the worlds of art and commerce, hype can be a blessing or a curse. When it comes to commerce, hype can be just the plug you need to save a sinking ship. Take the recent Star Wars film: Despite poor reviews, the Lucas behemoth continues to break box-office records across the world. In this context, ramming your product down the public’s throat can pay off in dividends, regardless of what you’re serving them.
When it comes to creative endeavors, though, hype can make elusive the realization of an artist’s potential. You could even call the ’90s the decade of hypenever before have so many performers suffered so much at the hands of the buzz machine.
Take Luscious Jackson, a group that started out in the early ’90s as the home-recording project of two New Yawk girls, Gabby Glaser and Jill Cunniff. When Beastie Boy Mike D heard the duo’s tape, he signed them as the first band on his new Grand Royal label. That notoriety earned Luscious’ debut 1992 EP In Search of Manny quite a bit of attention. It turned out to be well-deserved: Manny was a savvy mix of beats and acoustic instruments that showed a couple of women merging pop and hip-hop with style and panache.
After adding keyboardist Vivian Trimble and drummer Kate Schellenbach, Luscious Jackson set out to record their full-length debut as a band. Anticipation was high that they’d follow up on the promise of that first EP. But the next two records didn’t quite live up to their potential; instead, the foursome ended up sounding like an amateur funk band.
So now, after the departure of Vivian Trimble, comes Luscious Jackson’s self-produced third album, Electric Honey. Does it finally fulfill the artistic promise of In Search of Manny? Well, kinda. The record kicks off with two hooky cuts that find the LJs cleverly using horn charts and three-part harmonies. The third song, “Christine,” has a scratching interlude that almost works like a guitar solo. The next couple of songs are pleasantly groovy as well, adeptly incorporating Luscious Jackson’s hip-hop leanings into a full-band sound.
But then the whole thing begins to crumble. All the witty insights that made Manny such a pleasure have turned into cheesy lyrics about best friends and summer. Apparently, Luscious Jackson want you to get in touch with their inner 15-year-old. Meanwhile, the bland stabs at pop-rock, new wave, and country, along with a useless Debbie Harry cameo, suggest that they’re trying their hardest not be pigeonholed.
But by trying to become an all-purpose pop band, they continue to run away from the clever stylings that made the Manny EP such a breath of fresh air. So rather than making the definitive album that would assert their unique musical personality, they’ve made a passable hodgepodge. The result is an awkward compromise between ambition and fear of failure.
If Luscious Jackson need a role model for defeating the hype, they can look no further than Red Hot Chili Peppers. This L.A. quartet rose quickly to notoriety in the early ’80s, thanks to their energetic live show. After only six months together, the band was quickly signed to EMI and proceeded to turn out a series of largely forgettable records. At the time, those albums might have seemed revelatory for their combination of Stooges-style rock and Parliament-style funk, but now they just sound dated.
In 1988, after the death of guitarist Hillel Slovak, the Peppers hired on 19-year-old guitar prodigy John Fruciante and broke through with Blood Sugar Sex Magic. Working with producer Rick Rubin, the group started living up to its hype, taking its sound into more ambitious territory. But as good a record as it was, Blood Sugar seemed like just a stepping stone to what would be the definitive Chili Peppers album. Unfortunately, the group got stalled by Fruciante’s sudden departure and descent into heroin addiction. The rest of the band members soldiered on with ex-Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro.
Now, several years later, a healthy John Fruciante has returned to the fold, and the Chili Peppers have finally followed up on the promise of Blood Sugar Sex Magic. Californication is the work of a band that has been through enough shit to earn a recent profile on VH1’s Behind the Musica band now wise enough to know how to play their hand without overplaying it.
The most impressive contributions come from singer Anthony Kiedis. Nothing on the group’s previous records would have led you to expect the range and depth of emotion he displays here. Sailing from speak-singing to high notes on “Scar Tissue” or delivering rapid-fire rapping on “I Like Dirt,” he has never sounded better or more self-assured. And after 16 years of turning out lyrics ranging from clever to trite, Kiedis has struck on a beatnik stream-of-consciousness style that works. The songs are a lot weightier and more introspective than you’d expect of a guy who once sang, “I want to party on your pussy.”
Kiedis’ vocal delivery wouldn’t mean much, though, if it weren’t for the vital contributions of his bandmates, who keep the funk-metal shtick to a minimum and finally start playing to their strengths. Where on previous records they sounded like a bunch of talented musicians goofing off, on Californication the Chili Peppers are a well-honed rock ’n’ roll band reaching for transcendence in melodies and hooks. Bass player Flea once said his biggest inspirations were Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime; at long last, those influences are shining through.
Meanwhile, we all can breathe a sigh of relief that guitarist John Fruciante hasn’t become another victim of heroin’s deadly grip. He truly appears to be the creative spark this band needed. Each song finds him trying on a new style with ease. Minimalist on “Parallel Universe,” supportive on “Otherside,” feedback-drenched on “Emit Remmus,” and downright hooky in a Costello-ian fashion on “Easily,” Fruciante makes his predecessor Navarro sound downright unimaginative.
Like Luscious Jackson, though, the Peppers have had their fair share of goofy songs about friendship. On Californication, they end with “Road Trippin,” the sweetest song on the subject they’ve ever written. Over a delicate acoustic guitar, Kiedis sings about going on a surfing trip with some buddies and getting lost “anywhere in the U.S.A.” But this time around, his lines about looking in a friend’s eyes and seeing a “mirror for the sun” have never seemed truer. Listening to the song, you get the sense that the reason the Chili Peppers have survived this long is because they’re a group of friends who’ve weathered plenty of life’s ups and downs. It’s those bonds of friendship that let them get past the hype, past everyone else’s expectations, and live up to their own.
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