When Are You Going to Grow Up?
Trying On Maturity with the Chili Peppers and Oasis

This week’s column is about maturity, so I thought I might start it off with an immature rant against the entire auto mechanics industry. And I’m not even going to ask permission, so nyah.

Okay, granted, my eight year old car is a piece of shit. And granted, I don’t exactly treat it with the loving care that I probably ought. But still, this pissed me off. My car has been making this loud, belching, rattling sound lately, and while I don’t have the highest level of mechanical acumen, even I could figure out that it probably shouldn’t be making such a racket. Funny thing is, it hadn’t been doing any of that before I brought it in to the local Midas to get the burnt-out alternator replaced (for $350). Thinking there may be a connection, I trundled back to the same Midas and asked just what the hell was wrong with the crapbucket now.

And the Midas people told me I needed to replace something called a solenoid, I think. (Spellcheck isn’t red-flagging the word, so I guess it’s a real one, and that I spelled it correctly.) For $150, they told me, my problems would be solved. So I agreed, knowing shit about cars, and had the sole-whatsit replaced. Did it make a damn bit of difference? Of course not.

When I pointed this out to the Midas man, he shook his head, opened my hood, poked around for a second and then sprayed a cleaning fluid into my air intake system. Presto – the noise was reduced by about 60 percent. “It’s just dirty,” he said. “All you need to do is get the injection system cleaned.”

“Oh,” I said. “And how much is that?”

“About $40.”

“So, um, why did I pay $150 for this other thing?”

“Oh, you’d have had to have that replaced eventually anyway,” the man shrugged. And that’s when I kicked him in the balls.

Oh, wait, no, I didn’t. I paid him and left, grumbling about the Mechanics Mafia. $190, all told, for a $40 procedure, just because I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to cars. Personally, I’ll be quite pleased when they finally invent those Star Trek style teleporters, and we don’t need these rolling hunks of money-sucking machinery to get around anymore. Let’s get right on that, NASA, okay?

In the meantime, wanna buy a Saturn? Cheap.

* * * * *

One of the sweetest delights music holds for me is the chance to see artists grow before my eyes. (Or rather, hear them grow before my ears, but you knew what I meant.) Strangely enough, though, most people don’t seem to want their artists to grow up, and will gravitate to youthful energy over mature artistry any day of the week.

Some acts have made whole careers out of remaining immature, grasping hold of their original audience and playing strictly to them, and always giving them what they want. Observe the incredible longevity of a one-note band like AC/DC, who proudly revel in the fact that they’ve made the same album more than a dozen times. Or how about the irrepressible hair-metal tour that Poison headlines every year, that somehow manages to sell hundreds of thousands of tickets? People want their “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” and heaven forbid the band try to feed them anything else. Luckily for Poison and AC/DC, that suits them just fine – they have all the artistic ambition of Milli Vanilli.

But what about the risk-takers? It’s not very often that a band can sustain a lengthy, successful career while developing and morphing their sound. The rare exceptions are usually hailed as genius: the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and R.E.M., for example. By and large, though, people don’t want their rock stars to grow up.

It’s especially difficult to attain some level of artistry if you first become known for your immaturity. I can’t imagine Andrew W.K. sustaining his career beyond one more disc, especially if that disc isn’t as chock full of moronic party tunes as his debut. One of the few acts that’s managed the jump from novelty to respectability is the Beastie Boys, and even they don’t understand their own success. Still, the Beasties moved from “Fight For Your Right to Party” frat boys to social activists and artistic commentators with remarkable ease.

It hasn’t been that easy for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but with the just-released By the Way, the band has completed their transformation from silly funk outfit to genuinely affecting songwriters, all without sacrificing their core sound. They’re still the Chili Peppers, but lately they’ve been exploring their grown-up side. And I have to say, for a band that used to parade around naked with socks on their peckers, the Peppers wear maturity well.

By the Way follows the same path the Peppers began forging on 1999’s Californication, minus the ill-fitting sex-pun title. The whole disc is mellow and well-crafted, so much so that it’s hard to reconcile this work with the minimalist rap-funk of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, from only a decade ago. Here Anthony Keidis, often the worst thing about the band, summons reserves of melody we’ve never heard from him, crooning slow numbers like “I Could Die For You” without a hint of irony. And John Frusciante, whose return to the fold could have signaled a return to the rump-shaking days of yore, proves himself yet again as a textured and emotional guitar player. He takes on the whole thing with clean tones, never once amping up and distorting out.

There is, of course, a thin line between maturing and selling out, but where that line is remains subjective at best. Even though By the Way only jumps beyond mid-tempo-land once (“Throw Away Your Television”), there’s a palpable sense of honesty to this recording, an investment of emotion and belief that can’t be faked. The album will likely be met with casual disdain from the folks who climbed aboard in ’92, as it contains no “Give it Away,” no “Sir Psycho,” nor even any soft-loud-soft stuff like “Under the Bridge.” For those who have been with the band a bit longer, it’s the culmination point of a trip they’ve been on for years. Rather than a ploy for radio hits, By the Way feels like an argument for longevity, and quite a convincing one at that.

Oasis find themselves in a similar situation. They started off all brash and swagger, all cigarettes and alcohol, led by the brothers Gallagher, the self-styled Mick and Keith of the next generation. Oasis wrote balls-out rock songs peppered with the sense that the Gallaghers really thought they were running the best band in the world. By the time they imploded on the self-obsessed and ridiculously overdone Be Here Now, Oasis were living the mouthy rock star thing to the hilt.

The band’s problem always seemed to be the vast disassociation between their music and their opinion of their music. Oasis has always been a pretty good band, and if the Gallaghers (singer Liam and guitarist Noel) hadn’t strutted about proclaiming themselves better than the Beatles, they probably could have gotten by on that. Instead, they aimed for the brass ring, and fell several miles short.

The fallout landed all over their last album, the nearly pitable Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, and it appeared that Oasis needed to pull back and reexamine just about everything, or else break up. Happily, they’ve gone with choice A, and even though their fifth album, Heathen Chemistry, is not nearly their best, it points confidently in a number of right (and, dare I say, mature) directions.

For one thing, Noel Gallagher has lifted some of his often tyrannical control on this disc. Previous albums found him writing every song, singing several of them, and producing (and often over-producing to death) every note. Heathen Chemistry feels like a democracy, with songwriting contributions from all five members. Rather than The Gallagher Brothers and Some Other Guys, this album sounds like the work of a band, and that’s a remarkable step.

The album itself ain’t too bad, either. It represents a search for simplicity, with the appealingly straight-ahead single “The Hindu Times” setting the pace. You can draw a straight line, in fact, from the band’s no-bullshit rock and roll debut, Definitely Maybe, to this one. Even the slower songs, like sure hit “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” and “She Is Love,” aim for subtlety more than the bombast of previous ballads. The chorus of “Stop Crying” is augmented by a string section, but one that barely calls attention to itself. Even Liam’s signature rasp is reined in here, to nice effect. Speaking of Liam, he acquits himself well as a songwriter on Chemistry‘s closing tracks, the melancholy “Born on a Different Cloud” and the rollicking “Better Man.”

What’s sort of remarkable about Heathen Chemistry is the number of times the band could have gone for the jugular, sonically speaking, and decided not to. Because of that, it doesn’t quite have the punch of What’s the Story Morning Glory, but it deftly avoids the self-indulgent overkill the band had almost become known for. Chemistry is just a little rock and roll record, but it may be the most important one this band has made. It’s the kind of album whose very creation bespeaks a kind of self-discovery that a band like Oasis desperately needed if they were to continue. It sounds for all the world that they’ve stopped trying to convince everyone that they’re the best band in the world, and started going about the business of actually becoming that band.

Next week, the great Beth Orton returns with Daybreaker. Can’t wait…

See you in line Tuesday morning.