The Strokes, First Impressions Of Earth
Just as I was getting ready to hunker down and ignore all new music in favor of catching up with the classic past while (still) waiting for the zeitgeist to accomodate me again, I couldn't suppress my curiosity about the Strokes' latest. Lo and behold, it's not just the first release of the year, it's hard to imagine that it won't be one of the best. Metacritic's rating - hanging at 68 - doesn't reflect the real polarization the album's caused among fans. The worst reviews just suggest that the album is mediocre with moments; the worst fan reactions are considerably less kind.
The worst thing about the album is its disgusting production. Ditching Gordon Raphael in favor of perpetually employed industry man David Kahne means that the guitars, bass et al. sound like they were recorded for Incubus or some other late-90s radio alt-rock staple; full, rich, and vaguely distasteful. It takes some getting used to, as does the fact that Julian Casablancas takes the distortion and filters off of his voice; we can now hear him unprocessed, and it turns out that he sounds surprisingly like...Stephin Merritt (I'm not the only one to pick up on this), especially on "Ask Me Anything," when he rhymes "I've got nothing to say/I'm in utter dismay" over a lone Mellotron.
The next thing to distract you will be the fact that the best songs no longer sound effortless. Opener "You Only Live Once" is (choose one) a reference to Fritz Lang's 1937 classic, a snide reference to the James Bond vehicle You Only Live Twice, or just an enthusiastic cliche, but it sounds like typical old-school Strokes fare; it's a deceptive opener. The next track, "Juicebox," is the real James Bond vehicle, with secret-agent-man guitars that take guidance from Lalo Schifrin and other masters of 60s spy scores (the "Village Voice" suggests Mancini's "Peter Gunn"). Other unlikely influences peek throughout: the furious opening of "Heart In A Cage" wouldn't be out of place in a System Of A Down song, and the intro to "Electricityscape" flirts with Metallica. But throughout, the Strokes take potentially disastrous elements and force them to sound like the Strokes: inhumanly precise in the rhythm section, infuriatingly catchy and satisfying guitar lines, and Julian Casablancas dominating everything effortlessly. As always, Casablancas spits out stupid lyrics and quotables in equal measure: "Razorblade"'s "All my feelings are more important than yours" is a keeper, "Took a shit/it was fine" on "15 Minutes" not so much.
As the party line goes, this is the Strokes' "open" album. Those titular first impressions are presumably of a planet the band no longer seems too cool for; shaken by their lack of commercial success and fed up with their fickle hipster fanbase, they're not cool enough for the hipsters and inexplicably unready for the mainstream. The sentiments can often seem juvenile: on the best song, "On The Other Side," Casablancas laments: "I hate my friends, I hate them all/I hate myself for hating them/So I'll drink some more/I'll love them all/I'll drink even more/I'll hate them even more than I did before." At 17, I would've loved to have heard this song and related; as it is, I admire the craft, and sardonically relate to the sentiment, but let's face it; I like my friends. Mostly.
The Strokes may never make a classic album like Is This It? again, but First Impressions is easily my favorite. Their debut and its (equally good, no matter what anyone says) follow-up are the sound of high-school nostalgia to me (which I guess says more about what I did and who I hung out with in high school than the band's popularity), but this album proves they can go further than that. (The first time hearing "Vision Of Division," I had that rare thrilling moment where all the chord changes I predicted were the ones they actually chose.) An effortless seeming toss-off like "Last Nite" - still their pinnacle, when all is said and done - may never occur again, but I'm content with that. Die-hard old-school Strokes fans may have problems though.