Friday, 13 November 2009

John Frusciante 'Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt' (1994)

Who would've thought the popularity of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (whom popular opinion holds to be a gaggle of gurning, shirtless Californian twats with a few conversely great LPs to their name) could be indirectly responsible for an album like this?: A home-recorded double album of avant-garde, dissonant demons ('92 & '94 respectively) by guitarist John Frusciante. This is up there with other shadow flowers like Oar and the Madcap Laughs, except even more abstract in its style. Whereas Skip's music was a schizophrenic mess and Syd was just shot-away, Frusciante is not of that generation, and through the 90's was an extremely reclusive, emaciated crack and heroin addict with his head tightly screwed on and free of whimsy.

The songs/instrumentals are warts-and-all, frequently detuned, almost ignore melody (but not really) and sound as if they were written/recorded on the spot, freeform. If this spontaneity was the method, Frusciante's four-track tape machine (my favourite recording tool incidentally - because it forces you to make the most of the little space available) captures and preserves these moments of torment uninhibited. These recordings do not answer to gravity, they have their own laws and operate in an emotional and musical vortex. If you have experienced such a vortex or are capable of stepping into one, then you will 'get' Niandra. And no, you don't need to enjoy his group work, Frusciante has his own muse.

Listening back to this album by a physically withered, disintegrating individual, it seems miraculous that Frusciante managed to emerge the other side of the 90's; and go on to use his considerable talents to forge a decent solo career... but he'll never write like this again. He escaped the vortex, stepped through a waterfall, and today explores a different kind of spirituality. For all their macho sex-funk and Hendrixising, the Chili Peppers' constituent members cite an eclectic range of greats for influence, and Frusciante would go on to make some excellent, introspective and ambitious music off the back of post-punk/new wave/krautrock obsessions.
On Niandra however there is no trace of this later polish, it's a totally unique and isolated document - on its own planet musically and deeply personal, achieving a sort of metaphysical junkie plateau. The mistakes are left in, and anything resembling a pretty song is quickly ravaged with psychedelic tape effects and everything from tormented howls to banshee screams (made even more inhuman by occasional pitch-shifting). It's sad, ugly and beautiful.
When he finally rejoined his old group in 1999, cleaned up, Frusciante had lost all his teeth to infection and received extensive skin grafts for needle abscesses. He also suffered severe burns after his crack den burned down. Ladies and gentlemen:

I (Niandra Lades)
II (Usually Just a T-Shirt)

Remarkable 1994 interview and the only press Frusciante did during this period

Song from the album
Example of latter-day oeuvre

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