The Punk Virtuoso

Guitarist John Frusciante spices up the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

CD cover

Punk rock has never really had much patience with musical virtuosity. Actually, it’d be more accurate to say that for most of its history, punk has been actively hostile to virtuosity. It wasn’t just that three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust songs were easy for almost anyone to play (and therefore fit perfectly with punk’s D.I.Y. aesthetic). It was that the simpler a song sounded, the more real it seemed to be. Virtuosity was the source of art-rock pretension, of endless guitar solos and overblown rock operas. (Steve Howe and Yes was a classic example.) If rock was dead by the late 1970s, punk said, musicianship had helped kill it.

That hostility has grown more muted over the years, especially as bands steeped in the punk tradition—like Fugazi—have shown that you can abandon the “Hey, ho, let’s go!” approach without sounding like Rick Wakeman. Even so, you almost never hear alternative musicians talking about diminished fifths or suggesting that thinking about chord theory has actually made their songs better. That’s what makes John Frusciante, the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so interesting.

Frusciante came straight out of the Los Angeles punk scene, and he plays guitar for a band that’s always seemed more interested in putting on a great show than worrying about unusual chord changes. But in all his recent interviews, Frusciante emphasizes the importance of music theory to his work, saying things like, “Suddenly I was using chords that are bigger and fuller than your standard major or minor triad, and that allowed the melodies to expand.” He name-checks Burt Bacharach in a non-campy fashion and talks seriously about the influence on his own songs of Charles Mingus’ use of chord progressions. The Mingus reference seems apt since Frusciante ends up sounding more like a jazz musician than a rock star.

Of course, though this all sounds intriguing, it could be a recipe for precisely the sterile academicism that punk tried to demolish. But it isn’t. Instead, as evidenced by the Chili Peppers’ new album, , Frusciante has used theory exactly as he should have, deepening his musical palette, widening his range, and expanding his melodies. On By the Way, Frusciante has crafted memorable guitar lines and set them in surprisingly dexterous arrangements. The simple funk of the Chili Peppers’ earlier records—which had already begun to fade on Californication—makes only occasional cameos on this album and seems strangely jarring when it does. In its place is a far mellower and musically richer sound built around Frusciante’s guitar rather than Flea’s bass. Frusciante slides between styles from song to song and each time seems to find something distinctive. Sometimes that’s as simple as the haunting six-note riff that runs through “Dosed,” or the resonantly spiky line of “Can’t Stop.” On “Cabron,” Frusciante plays a Spanish guitar, and on the exceptional “Venice Queen,” he sets a clean guitar line against a lush, open soundscape that’s unlike anything the band has ever created before. It helps that Flea’s bass playing has never sounded better, with much less of the simple funk slapping that used to be his signature.

There’s only one real problem with the record, and unfortunately it happens to be a rather important one: Anthony Kiedis, the Chili Peppers’ front-man, can’t sing. Kiedis is often a galvanizing performer, but he doesn’t have the vocal chops—or for that matter, the lyrical chops—to follow through on the musical promises that Frusciante’s songwriting is making. Back when the Chili Peppers were essentially the best frat-party band on the planet, and most of their songs were either rapped or shouted, this didn’t matter. But now it does, and when Kiedis tries and fails to sing outside his range, as he does on “The Zephyr Song,”the effect is dismal. Musically, Frusciante is on a different level from where he was on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. But Kiedis would probably be better off still singing “Suck My Kiss.”

This makes listening to By the Way one of the stranger musical experiences I’ve ever had since I find myself listening to the first couple of minutes—or even the first few seconds—of songs and then skipping ahead to the next tune. I’ve replayed the first 30 seconds of “Dosed” innumerable times, and the instrumental beginning of “Venice Queen” is one of the best things I’ve heard in a very long time. But I’m not sure I’ve listened to any song on the record all the way through more than once or twice. At some point in most every song, I give up. For me, By the Way is a collection of gorgeous fragments, like a book of poems in which every third line is remarkable.

Given all this, it’s hard not to think that Frusciante’s talents are being wasted on the Chili Peppers. Even though this is very much his record, there’s hardly a song on it that wouldn’t sound better if someone else were singing, or if no one were singing at all. I can’t quite get away from the thought of what Frusciante might be able to do in a band like the late, great Polvo, which crafted dazzling slacker art out of strangely tuned guitars, eccentric time signatures, and deadpan vocals.

The truth, though, is that Frusciante is probably exactly where he should be (even if you set aside the fact that the Chili Peppers sell millions of copies of their records while bands like Polvo sell thousands or even hundreds). Frusciante’s made three solo records, and while they’re compelling, there’s a way in which they are too obviously experimental—in the literal sense—to succeed. Listening to By the Way, it sounds as if the limits of pop songwriting have disciplined Frusciante’s intelligence and his creativity in useful ways. There are places Frusciante cannot go with the Chili Peppers, but that seems to have made him explore more deeply the places he can go. And his songs end up showing not just how musical theory can invigorate pop, but also the reverse. So for now, I’ll take the fragments.