The opening seconds of ”Monarchy of Roses,” the lead song on the first Red Hot Chili Peppers album in five years, are nearly panic-inducing: Random drum fills and squalls of guitar feedback elbow each other without any direction. Frontman Anthony Kiedis moans about promises and dreams in a distorted death rattle. It’s the sound of a rock & roll institution going to pieces, unable to find its footing after a long hiatus and the departure of yet another guitarist, John Frusciante.
Then, like a funky bolt of lightning from Valhalla, the snare kicks into gear, Flea’s fleet-fingered bass line finds a sharp groove, and suddenly everybody’s rocking like it’s 1989 again. The Chili Peppers have been knocked down so often by infighting, egos, exits, and even death (founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988), but I’m With You doesn’t bear any of those scars. It helps that new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer has been on the road with the band before, and that his fretwork closely resembles the bluesy counterpoints of departed axman Frusciante. But he isn’t simply a mimic; he rarely slips into massive power chords on the big hooks, instead letting Flea and Kiedis do the major melodic lifting (which is most apparent on the ambling ”Annie Wants a Baby”). In fact, restraint seems to be Klinghoffer’s greatest weapon; his sunshiny riffs on single ”The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” earn him the right to blow off a bit of feedback-laden steam on the bridge.
That same restraint hasn’t always extended to the rest of the Peppers, with their heady if precarious mix of shredding funk-punk and U2-esque sonic stateliness. As with 2006’s Stadium Arcadium, I’m With You could have used some judicious editing. The band’s well-earned eclecticism sometimes brings more chaos than cohesion: ”Factory of Faith” has a killer bass loop, but dresses it up in too many sonic baubles — it’s the musical equivalent of a countess trying to wear all her hats at once. ”Police Station” is so languid it becomes gaseous, and ”Dance, Dance, Dance” comes across as too slight a closer for such a rich album.
But like 1999’s Californication — another release that came after a hiatus and lineup reshuffle — I’m With You is greater than the sum of its many-cogged parts. The highs (the hyperactive ”Goodbye Hooray,” the festive requiem ”Brendan’s Death Song”) greatly eclipse occasional stumbles (the lifeless ”Meet Me at the Corner”). Five years ago, the L.A. denizens famously intoned, ”California, rest in peace.” And while they’re still the house band for watching the Golden State sink into the ocean, they’re making sure that the beach bums left behind have an excellently heavy soundtrack for the after-party. B+