Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Records In Review: The Strokes--First Impressions Of Earth

The Strokes' potted history: album number one luvverly, number two more impressive in certain respects but less enjoyable and with less staying power, and now First Impressions Of Earth, which manages to be both better and worse, more and less enjoyable than its predecessors.

I'm not trying to be cryptic or hedge bets here. This is a tough album to get a handle on, largely because it's a tale of two (almost) halves. The first 8 or 9 tracks are as good if not better than anything in the band's ouevre, and the remainder is...not, and sounds strangely detached from the album's main sequence. But more on this anon. FIOE sees Julian C. and the boys in a more relaxed mood. There's still the same disciplined aesthetic, particularly in terms of song structure, but there's been a movement toward--well, I wouldn't call it part-writing exactly, but rather a shift away from the wall-of-sound layering of the first two records. The bass is punched up, with an increased emphasis on surging lines rather than the customary eighth-note monotones, making for a formidable rhythm section in combination with Fab "The Very Loud Human Drum Machine" Moretti's metronomic pounding. Lead guitar steps into the spotlight a lot, with surprising boldness in one or two spots. And you can actually hear Casablancas' vocals! With the fuzzbox dialed back, it's clear that he's no slick crooner, but his voice is really quite characterful, with enough variation in delivery to keep things interesting. He also knows where the line between biting and snarky is drawn, and stays on the good side of it.

The best material on the album makes good use of internal momentum and instrumental counterpoint and contrast. Re the former: one of my principal beefs about The Strokes has been their tendency to fire the bolt in the first thirty seconds, leaving precious little for the chorus and break parts (I'm thinking here of Room On Fire songs like "Between Love And Hate" and "The Way It Is"). "Razorblade" is a great example of getting the balance right. It's really just an alternation between two sections, one loud and broad with a catchy harmonized guitar line, and the verse part with pulsing arpeggiated bass and an upper range guitar melody duking it out rhythmically with the vocal line, but it's exemplary in its use of noise and space--expansive without being overblown. "On The Other Side," another winner, has more of a loping, stop-start feel but uses the same techniques of contrast and space, as does the kick-ass "Juicebox," although it's busier in songwriting terms. A first for the group is "Ask Me Anything," which is nothing but vocals and mellotron-like strings and woodwinds. This one's particularly interesting in the way it contrasts a rigidly metrical new wave keyboard line with a sweeping and very uncharacteristic break part.

Sometimes the sectional contrasts work on FIOE, and sometimes they don't. "Vision Of Division" is my favourite track and one of their best, and it's part traditional Strokes melodic stuff and part hell-for-leather, scream-yourself-coarse quasi-metal, with an astonishing pentatonic-style guitar solo/precision drum freak-out thrown in for good measure. Not much left in the tank after that one! "Ize Of The World," on the other hand, starts out like a '70s cowbell rocker, goes all mellow, then wraps it up with a tribute to Interpol. Appalling. The broody "Fear Of Sleep" isn't terrible by any means, but the movement from A to B to C feels similarly effortful.

Which brings me to those last five songs. A nasty person might call them shite, but a glass half-full guy like me prefers to say that they require a different kind of treatment than this album was capable of giving them. It's almost like they came from a different recording session. I don't mind "Evening Sun," as it's evocative in an unusual way for the group, but "15 Minutes" is extremely ponderous and overwrought--I counted three songs in a row where Julian builds to a climax by screaming like a Rothman's-addicted banshee--and "Red Light," with its hippie-freak harmonized guitar, is just plain bizarre.

First Impressions Of Earth will probably be let loose from its jewel case more often than Room On Fire, but not for end-to-end play. The lesson here is that the perfect Strokes album length is 37 minutes. Half-to-two-thirds highly recommended; the rest...

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