[3 January 2006]
For the Strokes, it’s been nearly impossible to separate the music from the hype. Even before their debut dropped, the band rode an unprecedented wave of advance press. So much in fact, that by time people actually got around to listening to Is This It as much was written about the band’s wealthy backgrounds as about their music. Two year’s later, the music world waited with bated breath to see if the band would fail with their sophomore effort Room on Fire.
For listeners who have managed to put the celebrity relationships and irrelevant press aside, the Strokes first two albums are phenomenal efforts. Is This It was a blissful 30-minute slice of garage pop while with Room on Fire the band expanded their palette ever so slightly, working in darker shades of reggae and ‘80 pop into their street scuzzy sound. The album was still the Strokes the public knew, but with tentative steps in other directions. Producer Gordon Raphael, who manned the boards for both albums, kept the sound simple, raw and direct. Beyond that, the band had possibly the best sequenced albums of the new millennium, with perfect A-side breaks (“Someday”—and yes, I own these albums on vinyl), fantastic album closers (“Take It Or Leave It”) and great kick off songs (“What Ever Happened”). And with 11 songs on each disc, it seemed the band kept the filler on the cutting room (and they largely were filler, judging by the B-sides to date).
The buzz preceding First Impressions of Earth has certainly been no different than the last two records. Four songs found their way to the web months before the album’s release date was even announced and was met with collective bewilderment, praise and derision. Now, the album has arrived in full and the immaculate care and presentation that went into the last two albums has been tossed aside for bold—if often ill-advised—experiments in style and an overstuffed album that punctures holes in the band’s usually airtight songwriting. David Kahne whose resumé includes The Bangles, Sugar Ray and Sublime, was a strange choice as producer for the record but, to my surprise, Kahne keeps the Strokes sound more or less the same as it’s always been, just punched up slightly. While it might be easy to point to the industry guy behind the boards, the album speaks for itself, and the Strokes managed to write a flop all by themselves.
For their third outing, the urgency of their first two albums has all but disappeared. For a band that captured the feverish intensity of late nights and lost loves in New York City, it seems they are now ready to retire to Vegas. Much of the album is bogged down by poorly conceived and overblown songs that struggle with a baffling combination of styles. The most talked about track will certainly be the absolutely awful “Ask Me Anything”. With nothing more than a mellotron, the song is an excruciating exercise in morose goth pop, in which Julian Casablancas accurately sings over and over in the chorus “I’ve got nothing to say”. In the hands of someone like Stephin Merritt, he would find the humor and irony in the tune, but Casablancas doesn’t have the range or delivery to make this work. Unfortunately, the results aren’t much better with the rest of the band.
“Evening Sun” begins astonishingly as a ballad, with Casablancas’ weak, mumbling, drunken croon taking a stomach churning center stage. Midway, the band shifts gear and ends the tune with a plodding, somewhat pedestrian approximation of three-chord punk. It’s a jarring combination that simply doesn’t work and reveals both halves of the song to be poorly written. “Vision of Division” is one part dub and another part classic Strokes, requiring the listener to sit through limp verses to get to the excellent choruses (not to mention the song’s blistering centerpiece solo). Lead single “Juicebox”, suffers a similar fate with an otherwise fantastic glam pop chorus, following a god-awful alternarock pre-chorus in which an off-key Casablancas wails at the top of his voice, “Why don’t you come over here/ We’ve got a city a love.” There are also a good number of songs that are merely passable. “Killing Lies”, “15 Minutes” and “Electricityscape” are all competent numbers, but nothing more than that.
However, for all the misguided efforts, First Impressions of Earth does contain a handful of tunes that display the band’s songwriting at its tightest and best. They still have a knack for opening and closing an album, and “You Only Live Once” and “Red Light” are uniformly excellent. “Razorblade” finds Casablancas as the top of his lyrical game, and tells a humorous story about a needy, yet self-centered protagonist who proclaims to his beloved “Oh, my feelings are more important than yours” only to recant at the track’s close, “Sweetheart, your feelings are more important of course.” And with “Ize of the World” Casablancas manages to turn the calculated modern lifestyles of the affluent into a subtle attack on the Bush Administration, with a stirring final verse: “A bed to organize/ A product to advertise/ A market to monopolize/ Movie stars you idolize/ News to scandalize/ Enemies to neutralize/ No time to apologize/ Shot them to tranquilize/ Weapons to synchronize/ Cities to vaporize.” Some due must be given to the rhythm section of drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture who, though criticized in the past for merely capable accompaniment, taking a larger role this time around and offer some of the disc’s finest playing.
In Alexis Petridis’ review of the album for the Guardian, he comes to a somewhat flippant conclusion that in trying to court an American audience, the band has consciously written songs to appeal to an American public who demand more substance in their rock songs. It’s a dubious argument at best that seems to ignore the British love of their own homegrown and overproduced acts (Oasis anyone?). Moreover, it pretends that the Strokes’ fine songwriting, and minimal production were some kind of parlor trick that they are now trying to correct. First Impressions of Earth is the mythic “third album” that for many bands is a chance to expand, mature and experiment. The Strokes have certainly, and somewhat bravely, taken bold steps in new directions, but it simply didn’t work. The album is too long and filled with ideas and songs that are half-baked. That said, there are enough flashes of brilliance and a few genuinely great songs that offer hope that the next time around, the band will regain their usually assured, confident swagger and deliver everything this album was supposed to be.