Let me preface this review by telling a quick story:
I was first introduced to John Frusciante’s solo material in 2003 with the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Live at Slane Castle DVD, specifically, with his solo performance of the song “Maybe.”
Enthralled with the man’s voice and guitar style, I discovered that he had a couple of solo albums released, and, as it is a very good place to start, I decided to start from the very beginning and pick up the 1994 debut album Niandra LaDes & Usually Just a T-Shirt. And so, my teenage self went to the local record store, located a copy of the CD, and promptly purchased it.
On the ride back, I decided to pop in the CD for some of the beautiful vocals I had come to expect from Frusciante, and what I got was, well, not exactly what I had anticipated.
The guitar work, though still very well done, introduced me to the disorienting low-fi recording style of these songs and was soon followed by a voice, which I knew to be Fruscante’s, and yet it was so far away from what I had heard on the Slane DVD and his recent work with the Chili Peppers. His voice was frail, off-putting, and much grittier.
Needless to say, after the first few minutes of the opening track, “As Can Be” and the immortal line “In your pussy I’m coming, and I LOOOOVE YOOOOOUUUU,” the CD was swiftly ejected from the player (did I mention that I was I teenager, and that my mother was driving me?), and my buyer’s remorse began to set in.
Coming back to Niandra after some time, I can see why my previous expectations of the album were bound for ruin. Does that make it a “bad” piece of work? Absolutely not. The fact is simply that the music and I were operating on two separate wavelengths, and inevitably, the result wasn’t a favorable one.
Now, I look at this album and its follow-up Smile from the Streets You Hold (1997) in the same basic way one might look at a low-budget art film. It’s gruff, unconventional, and entirely out of left-field, but that’s part of the charm.
In many ways, these two releases are difficult to separate from one another as they take a similar approach in their stream-of-consciousness songwriting and bare-bones production qualities.
Yet, the records are quite different in their structures and production backgrounds. Niandra LaDes & Usually Just a T-Shirt has the distinction of being essentially a double album, as the title suggests, which tends to feel like more of a cohesively-structured collection than its successor. Smile is essentially a compilation of older material, deleted songs from Niandra, and a few odd songs that were newly-recorded in 1996.
As most people will know, these records were released after Frusciante had left the Chili Peppers in the wake of their hit album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. It’s also well-known that this period marked a time when the musician’s drug habit came to the forefront with Smile infamously being released in 1997 for drug money. Though it’s to rehash this old, sensationalized tabloid news of its time, these two ideas are nevertheless ingrained within the material on these two records.
As such, these records are, in some regards, difficult to listen to. This isn’t to take away from the brilliant aspects of each album, because there is surely plenty to be appreciated here from Niandra’s foreboding “Been Insane” and “Running Away into You,” the unsettlingly poetic “Usually Just a T-Shirt #3” and Smile’s stark finesse in “Life’s a Bath,” “A Fall Thru the Ground,” and the profound trippiness of “I May Again Know John.”
Though not many could truly claim to know much about Frusciante’s state of mind at this point in time, these records could be seen as an exploration of that landscape, and perhaps that’s what makes them unsettling, even haunting to listen to.
These records capture a cathartic release of music that symbolically equates to a picture of storm clouds over the horizon. The resulting material conjures presumptions of this one man’s trials and personal struggles that we, as listeners, could only begin to imagine.
The beauty of these records lies in their honesty and uncomfortable intimacy, aspects that are, for better or worse, unavoidable.
Niandra LaDes & Usually Just a T-Shirt
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Been Insane,” “Running Away into You” “Your Pussy’s Glued to a Building on Fire,” and the whole of Usually Just a T-Shirt, which, I have to admit, is the one half of the album that I prefer.
Smile from the Streets You Hold
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Life’s a Bath,” “A Fall Thru the Ground,” “I May Again Know John,” “Smile from the Streets You Hold”