When we talk about a band’s “sound,” we’re talking about a range of musical concepts: the band’s lineup of instruments, the methods individual members use, the electronic effects they and their producers favor, and how the band’s players stack and blend vocal and instrumental lines to form a composite effect.
This issue, sound, came up on a family car ride, when my wife, Abby, pulled up on iTunes a new song by one of the few groups the entire crew likes—the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At its most superficial level, the song in question, “Dark Necessities,” is a funky concoction, the sort of tune we all bob our heads to. But where Abby— who had heard the song just a few times before—was already rattling off lyrics, I was stuck on that other question: What makes a band’s sound its sound?
We could ask a range of questions to diagnose what exactly makes a band’s sound what it is. Is the lineup a standard rock configuration: a couple of guitars, a bass, and drums? Or are there some surprises: a synthesizer, a piano, a horn line, or a choir? What are the color choices players are making? Is the guitar clean and high, or distorted and midrange? How is the bassist striking the instrument—using a pick, or the thumb as a mallet, or the pointer and middle fingers to pluck gently? What regulates the blending of these timbres into a coherent texture?
And there’s another level to consider. A band’s sound is powerful in determining the sorts of moods we assign to the music, the aura it gives off. While itself quantifiable, the composite texture results in something that very much isn’t. An analogy in language would be: “These two consonant sounds and this vowel sound put together in this order creates the word love.” That word, love, can trigger a range of experiences and memories that transcend the material stuff of that word.
And so it went my line of inquiry during my rumination on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The aura of “Dark Necessities” is muted—what I’d consider grey scale. Flea’s bass lines alternate between a funky slap—second in brightness to the song’s disco-y guitar—and, surely the song’s darkest timbre, the dry, colorless thuds that open the song. Musical color takes on a structural role, when the band speeds up this thuddy motif, filters it through an AM radio effect, and uses it in lieu of a drum fill. Incidentally, this “reaching across” technique, recalibrating a sound and giving it a different structural role, is not at all new. Beethoven did precisely this with his Fifth Symphony’s famous dot-dot-dot-dash motive, turning it into a bass line in the first movement’s second theme and all sorts of musical material in subsequent movement. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music may not be quite as brilliantly integrated as Beethoven’s, but the band gets points for finding and sticking to a good principle.
The most human element of “Dark Necessities” is, of course, the voice. There’s nothing particularly graceful about Anthony Kiedis’s vocals. Were he to untether from his habits, I think he’d drift off into oblivion as just another bad singer. So, it’s a plus that, even as he expands his range in “Dark Necessities,” Kiedis remains stylistically true to himself. The “new” in “Dark Necessities” is its fresh set of sources: Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, the Brothers Johnson. Those are admittedly subjective associations, so I’ll add this more general description: The inflections are breathy, lyrical, and sensual—and that’s not something I’ve heard him do before. The style trait I most associate with Kiedis is his choppy, rhythmic pattern. “Give It Away” is the archetype, but we hear this same trait about 15 years later in
As we’d expect, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, since the days of “Give It Away,” have mellowed into a slow burn. If the song were visual art, it’d be a skuzzy black and white Larry Clark photo. Actually, there are some visuals to draw meaning from, the song’s video, and it gives us a few clues about the nature of the particular sort of glow that “Dark Necessities” gives off. The video’s characters are a cadre of young women skateboarders, covered in scabs, bruises, and fresh wounds. In some scenes, they lie on a grungy sofa, physically spent after a night of skateboarding. In other scene, they’re gliding down or wiping out on a Los Angeles boulevard. The camera fixates on their oozing wounds while we, the viewers, wince. The skateboarders find the pain exhilarating. A self-destructive impulse, manifesting in blood and torn skin, controls them.
Although I still can’t recite the lyrics, I have Googled them since that car ride. Dark necessities are part of Kiedis’ design, too, apparently. (From a guy known for wearing nothing but a tube sock on stage, this doesn’t surprise me in the least.) In the song, Kiedis talks subjectively about sex—to the object of his attraction. He attributes his sexual urges to the star—you got “sneak attacked by the zodiac”—and to the moon and the shadows that it makes. In other words, what attracts him to the object of his song, and the acts through which the attraction expresses itself, are mysteries to Kiedis.
Rock music—I’ll use the term in its most generous sense—does best when it sonically manifests primal content. That could be anger, or rebellion, or sexual desire, or angry, rebellious sexual desire. “Give It Away” is on the raw end of the spectrum, little more than a boast or a goad. “Dark Necessities” is subtle self-disclosure. Its sonic makeup, accordingly, is more complex, describing its sound, a subtler endeavor. It’s good listening, but it’s a mystery to me why that is.