The Chili Peppers are undermined by artless vocals


Excuse me, but didn't Anthony Kiedis once know how to sing?

Granted, the guy would never be mistaken for Tony Bennett, but as any fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers would attest, at least he knew how to put a song across. There was a certain sly authority to the way he handled Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" and an unmistakable confidence to his rap-style delivery in "Give It Away Now." Even his occasionally awkward phrasing in "Under the Bridge" seemed more the product of innocence than incompetence.

But from the very first notes of the Chili Peppers' new album, "One Hot Minute" (Warner Bros. 45733, arriving in stores today), Kiedis appears to have lost it. It isn't just that his voice drifts off-pitch with alarming regularity, although given the amount of time the Chili Peppers spent making this album, I'd hate to imagine how far off the out-takes must have been.

What truly torpedoes his performance is that he raps like a mush-mouth, croons like Bill Murray at his lounge-lizard worst and generally exhibits as much sense of melody as the average basset hound.

fTC It's a shame Kiedis stumbles so badly, because otherwise, the Chili Peppers have never sounded better. Bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith have never been tighter -- at times, their interplay seems almost telepathic -- and new guitarist Dave Navarro provides even more muscle and imagination than he brought to his old band, Jane's Addiction. If instrumental tracks were all that mattered, "One Hot Minute" would easily be one of the year's most exciting albums.

Unfortunately, it does take more than that. Sure, "One Big Mob" has its share of bravura moments, from the spooky clouds of guitar and melotron that give the bridge its mystic aura to the rhythmic overdrive that spurs the tune to its finale. But those hardly compensate for Kiedis' flabby, unfocused yelp.

Likewise, the nasty, bass-driven groove that gives "Falling Into Grace" its testosterone swagger is almost totally undone by the tuneless vocal. It's one thing to hear a singer veer off-pitch in a moment of passion, but come on -- if I wanted to hear singing this consistently lame, I'd spend my time at karaoke clubs.

Making this seem all the more self-indulgent is the half-baked cant Kiedis offers in lieu of lyrics. "Shallow Be Thy Name" is perhaps the worst of the lot, an anti-religion rant cribbed from Atheism 101. Given how incendiary the playing is, you'd think they could have come up with something deeper than "You'll never burn me/I'll be your heretic."

More disappointing by far, though, is "Deep Kick," a recollection of Kiedis and Flea's early friendship that could have been this album's "Under the Bridge." Though it does feature some amusing anecdotes as well as a scorching solo by Navarro, it fails to bring those elements into focus, fumbling the ending by closing with a bit of "philosophy" borrowed from the Butthole Surfers. (What, you read Nietzsche instead?)

It's not as if every vocal has to be golden. For instance, Flea has an even less disciplined voice than Kiedis, yet there's something wonderfully endearing about the wobbly delivery he evinces for "Pea." His underpowered voice only reinforces the reflective intimacy of the song (which uses little more than his acoustic bass guitar for a backing track), adding resonance to self-deprecating lines like "I'm a teeny, tiny little ant."

But when Kiedis can't quite stay on pitch for the "I like pleasure spiked with pain/And music is my aeroplane" chorus of "Aeroplane," many listeners will feel that the balance has shifted too far to the side of pain.

Frankly, it will take more than one or two hot minutes to make this album worth owning.


To hear excerpts from the Red Hot Chili Peppers album "One Hot Minute," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6199 after you hear the greeting.

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