In the music industry, the “haves” matter. Artists with a history of success are privileged with more creative freedom and autonomy. It’s a simple equation: If you’re selling, you’re golden. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have rewarded consumers’ faith in their two decades of taking musical liberties by delivering, time and time again. And if you’re the Chili Peppers’ bassist, Flea, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and considered one of the most innovative bassists in music history, you can afford to go off the reservation and release a solo record like Helen Burns.
Before diving into the album, it’s important to consider a few critical notes. First, the EP is an escapist art project for Flea, which isn’t saying much since he’s incredibly imaginative even when constructing more traditional music. Second, he made the album available for digital download at a “name your own price” until August 9th, when it becomes available through all digital retailers. If that wasn’t indicative enough of Flea’s indifference toward the album’s potential revenue, he announced all profits were to be given to the Silver Lake Conservatory. In his statement, Flea stressed that Helen Burns is a “weird and arty record” that sounds nothing like the Chili Peppers and instead is just him “tripping out at home.” Those are all salient points, and those caveats should be kept in mind.
The result? Flea throws a great deal of variety at the listener in just under 27 minutes of sometimes enjoyable, sometimes excruciating, and always perplexing music. To its credit, Helen Burns accomplishes what most side projects set out to do: taking chances that normally wouldn’t make the cut in the artist’s primary band.
At its best, Helen Burns sounds like something played in a Brooklyn coffee shop (“Pedestal of Infamy”), highlighted with saggy bass lines, light percussion, and catchy keyboard synthesizer effects. Think Jim Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” sans the vocals. At its worst, it’s a mix of various instruments making ambient noise (“333”). There appears to be no middle ground, and there is definitely no singular approach. That’s not to say the record is terrible, because, it’s not. Let’s put it this way: In totality, the album could be mistaken for a soundtrack of an arcane Quentin Tarantino film.
It doesn’t help that there’s no smooth transitions between already overloaded tracks. In fact, sometimes you can hear the EP’s arbitrary nature within a single track. For instance, in “333 Revisited”, Flea overlaps his trademark funky bass lines with synthesizers, like the backtrack of a Sega Genesis video game circa 1994. Later, this transforms into suspenseful chase music that’s reminiscent of a frantic scene in an ’80s horror flick.
Only two of the songs feature vocals. The title track gives the spotlight to Patti Smith, but the melancholy lyrics juxtaposed with a laboring piano line make the track taxing rather than cathartic. More fluid than Smith’s attempt, the closing track, “Lovelovelove”, uses the Silverlake Conservatory kids and adult choir. It’s an allaying close to an otherwise challenging EP, almost sounding like something played at the end of a Disney movie.
Helen Burns lacks true staying power. It’s not for lack of effort, or really even the quality of the sound, but because keeping up with what’s happening becomes a chore instead of a pleasantry.
Essential Track: ”Lovelovelove”