Chili Peppers try romance, get serious


June 24, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Californication (Warner Bros. 47386)

Given their randy reputation, it's easy to assume that if the Red Hot Chili Peppers have decided to call an album "Californication," the songs are likely to be totally sex-obsessed. Indeed, the album boasts numerous R-rated references and even a few NC-17 lyrics.

But on the whole, the emphasis in "Californication" is on romance, not sex. In fact, the album is bursting with heart-on-sleeve declarations, from the transcontinental courtship of "Emit Remmus" to the playful infatuation of "Around the World." It's as if singer Anthony Kiedis is drunk on love, so eager to leap into matrimony that he opens "Easily" with the couplet, "Easily let's get carried away/Easily let's get married today."

Being in the mood for marriage may have made the lyrics more sentimental than usual, but it hasn't softened the band's sound any. "Around the World" opens the album with a full-on Flea attack, with the bassist leading the band in a short thrash sequence before settling down into a muscular funk groove. And there's more aural aggression in store after that, from the testosteronal wallop of "Get On Top" to the breathless pace of "Right On Time."

But no matter how much energy the band exerts, the musical tension is always followed by blissful release. So even though "Right On Time" starts with a breathless burst of high-octane funk, the band balances the edgy staccato of the verse with a soft, semi-sweet chorus.

Most songs don't go to such extremes, though, opting instead for a smoother, more consistent sound. Still, there's a strong sense of drama to these songs. For instance, even though the rhythm arrangement beneath "Other Side" generally keeps the music at a steady simmer, the vocals vary in intensity, adding enough emphasis to the "How long will I slide?" chorus to make the heavy guitar in the bridge seem just an extension of the song's mood.

Then there's the title tune, a meditation on Hollywood's empty promises that seems almost an indictment of California dreamin'. As Kiedis sketches the various ways in which movies and TV seduce the unwary, the music builds slowly and steadily until the band punches home the hook: "Dream of Californication." It may not be Woody Guthrie, exactly, but it's a surprisingly serious statement, and the Chili Peppers deliver with impressive gravity.

Ambitious? Sure. But that doesn't keep the Peppers from tossing off songs that are just silly, salacious fun, like "Get on Top" or "I Like Dirt."

That "Californication" finds the band at home with both party fare and reflective, moody material is impressive. Could it be that the Chili Peppers are only just entering their prime? ***


Smash Mouth

Astro Lounge (Interscope 80316)

In the '70s, new wave started when young rockers tried to recapture the honesty of the music they grew up on. Two decades later, alt-rockers like Smash Mouth are trying for the same effect with the music of their youth -- '70s new wave. Not only is "Astro Lounge" chockablock with vintage effects, like the surf guitar and Vox organ on "Diggin' Your Scene," but the songwriting seems to draw directly from some new wave oldies. So even though "All Star" boasts both dancehall rhythms and hip-hop slang, it's easy to hear an undercurrent of Joe Jackson in the verse, while the sing-song chorus to "I Just Wanna See" owes more than a little to Madness. ** 1/2

Def Leppard

Euphoria (Mercury 314 546 212)

On a certain level, Def Leppard's latest album, "Euphoria," is a giant step backward. But frankly, that's the best thing about it. Rather than try to rethink their sound to fit contemporary rock trends, the Leps go back to basics -- big, crunchy guitars, thickly harmonized choruses and ultra-catchy melodies. Even without the input of producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange (the man who shepherded the band though its biggest albums), the Leps have no trouble evoking the glory of the past, from the airy romance of "It's Only Love" to the punchy, sing-along refrain of "Demolition Man." Even the fist-pumping "Back In Your Face" works well, despite the fact that it included virtually every Gary Glitter cliche on record. Who says you can't go home again? ***

Various artists

Profilin' the Hits (Profile 16404)

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