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New Frusciante record, finally…

Still completely intimidated by trying to come up with content for this blog, so I’m going to start with something easy.

After a two-year hiatus from making solo records (unless you count Ataxia- which I don’t really), John Frusciante’s The Empyrean hits stores this week.  Technically, it’s not out until after this post, but I’m fortunate enough to have obtained it already via some shady mechanisms.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still buying a physical copy as soon as possible.  I’m a huge fan and couldn’t wait any longer to hear it.  So here we go:

The Empyrean

The record is 10 tracks and it clocks in at 54:20 – a considerable length for so few tracks.  Let me preface my rant by saying that I was somewhat skeptical about this record for a few reasons.  I’m always afraid when an artist that I love puts out a new record that it will suck.  I always want them to continue to produce high quality work and avoid going the route of, say, Aerosmith, who defy the laws of the universe and insist on putting out records despite their lack of inspiration or creativity.  If you don’t agree, please take 10 minutes and watch these little gems:

You’ve gotta love how Joe Perry walks up to the camera at the beginning of “Pink”, shirt unbuttoned, and mock checks himself out.  Shouldn’t that have stopped in 1987?  I don’t want to even talk about the Armageddon one (which they didn’t write, mind you).  But I digress…

The other reason that I was apprehensive about The Empyrean was because it is a concept album.  Concept albums can be hit or miss for me.  You’re supposed to take them in as a whole in an attempt to understand the artist’s vision, but that doesn’t always work out.  They can come off pretentious – see The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute. But they can also be unified and interesting – see Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (obviously) or Pink Floyd’s Animals.

These factors gave me plenty of reason to be skeptical, especially given Frusciante’s bizzarro take on humanity, creation, and spirits.  Trying to decipher the meaning behind his lyrics is often mind-boggling, especially when he gets going on concurrent universes and having a conversation with spiritual entities while sitting in your living room.  But I’m always able to put that aside and just appreciate his work for its musical intricacies and the experience they provide.  Ok, enough preface.

The record begins with “Before the Beginning”, a spacey, slow, 9-minute intrumental epic featuring a prominent guitar track laid over light rhythm guitar, piano, and meandering drums.  Frusciante’s guitar work here isn’t flashy, as it usually isn’t on his solo records, and the melancholy melodies set an introspective tone for the album.  This track is exactly how I envisioned a Frusciante concept album starting.

I’m not going to comment on every song here but there are a few standouts.  The second song, a cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”, is perfectly suited for Frusciante’s powerful voice and falsettos.  The keyboard/guitar arrangement of the song is a beautiful reimagining of the original.

Ok, so maybe I’m going in order.  “Unreachable”, the album’s third track, was released about a month ago on Frusciante’s MySpace page (http://www.myspace.com/johnfrusciantemusic).  This is a quintessential Frusciante track with a creative ending.  It features a lot of Frusciante’s signature techniques, including  screaming vocals, falsetto harmonies, and unexpected changes.  This track is the first on the album where Flea makes his presence known, adding bass line that is uniquely his style.  The song climaxes with a powerful chorus of guitar tracks all playing together.  There must be at least five guitar lines here.  I haven’t heard anything quite like this in Frusciante’s music before now.  The closest is the outro in “Wet Sand” on Stadium Arcadium.

In “Dark/Light”, Frusciante again pushes the boundaries of what fans expect to hear in his music.  After three verses of soft, echoing vocals, the song unexpectly shifts as an electronic drum beat kicks in and a gospal chorus makes a strong appearance.  The ending of this song may seem overlong, but it features one Flea’s best bass lines played overtop of the gospal chorus.  It’s fantastic.

“Central” is another standout for me as it displays Frusciante’s entire vocal range, from high falsetto verses to a near-screaming chorus.

“Enough of Me” and “One More of Me” can be looked at as sister songs.  The first is sung in a moderate key while the latter is sung in a somewhat odd low key.  The two songs feature the same melodies in parts and are alike in lyrical content.  It’s an interesting concept, but it’s strange to hear Frusciante sing such low notes.  “One More of Me” also includes some howling that can only be described as David Lee Roth-esque.  The jury’s still out on that one.

Maybe I’m a sucker for all of his records, but I love this one too.  It’s a complete departure from where he left of with Curtains in 2006 and it’s unlike any of his other records.  It has it’s weak spots for sure and I have literally no idea what he’s talking about most of the time, but it’s still going to be on constant loop around here for a while.  Frusciante may not be everyone’s thing (or even most peoples’), but his creativity is never lost on me.

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