Good ‘Impressions’: Strokes third is a step up

By Mark Guarino

One of the all-time greatest tests for a rock band is the survival of the much dreaded sophomore slump. Which the Strokes passed with flying colors this week with the release of “First Impressions of Earth” (RCA), their third album.

If the band sounds particularly supercharged on this new batch of songs, it’s because for awhile there, it was suspected the gas had run out. When the Strokes debuted in 2001, the band was alone in a climate that better served rap-rock powerhouses like Limp Bizkit or Korn.

By comparison to such high octane production and overbearing angst, the Strokes sounded like a breath of fresh air, with their taut guitar lines, tightly syncopated rhythms and jaded crooning from singer Julian Casablancas. They arrived at a time of synergy. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened a month before the release of their new album, giving the band from New York City special cache. In their music they deftly reaffirmed the city’s rock lineage, from the Velvet Underground to Television while, in their disaffected attitude and shrugging pose, telegraphed a kind of ragged hometown pride.

The Strokes could never sell as many albums to match the massive amount of press they received so it was not a surprise that, when their second album “Room on Fire” (RCA) came out in 2003, there was burnout fatigue felt by the press, public and band and the album was dismissed. Many new bands have come and gone between then and now — Interpol, the Vines, the Hives, the Doves, the Music — suggesting that the new rock phenomenon the Strokes originally represented may have just been a passing fad.

But that would be painting the last few years in one broad — forgive this — stroke. What happened since the Strokes come on the scene is a splintering of the mainstream. Removed from hip-hop, rap-rock was the last massive musical trend that was sold to the public through a partnership between the major labels and commercial radio giants. While the genre created hitmakers, it was more due to saturation. In other words, unless you were independently motivated to seek out new music on your own through the internet or word of mouth, your choice was limited if nil.

The breakthrough of the Strokes signaled to the industry that there was a significant percentage of the public out there thirsty for something outside what TRL was selling. And that, even though sales would not be as high, these new bands could sustain an audience, rather than disappear into the discount bins after a single hit. That’s proven true for independent bands that have just recently found their way to the charts since the Strokes showed up — Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, the White Stripes. These days, there is no single mainstream. Instead, thanks to digital sales which leveled the playing field between artists with whopping promotional budgets and others with none, the mainstream is a much more varied landscape. And although global hitmakers like Mariah Carey will always dominate the charts, there are now many more artists that can satiate their particular audience. Now, the pie is wider and everyone can enjoy a piece.

The Strokes did not become the casualty of this cultural shift. In fact, “First Impressions of Earth” is their most commercial sounding album to date. The band switched producers, from Gordon Raphael who directed their first two albums, to David Kahne, a hit-minded producer behind albums by Sugar Ray, Paul McCartney, Cher and Fishbone among others. Kahne juices up the Strokes’ sound, tempering the unkempt features they are best known for — jumbled vocals, simplistic song structures, ragged dissonance — and creating a glossier version of a band that sounds readying the attack.

Even though Casablancas is credited for writing the majority of the songs, this is a true band album in league with classic American rock ensembles like Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. At the core are guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. Instead of simply toughening up a single riff as was their strength in the past, the duo play off each other constantly, stretching the range of each song so that each one sounds nervier and with heightened confidence. On “Ize of the World,” the guitarists strike chords together before machine-gunning at the chorus — one twirling elegant syncopations like The Edge of U2, the other driving the song into a darker place. In every possible way, the inventive ways the pair finds counterpoints in their playing makes this album sound more dynamic than anything in the band’s past.

The songwriting is aimed to demonstrate the Strokes are no longer restricted by the limitations of their first two albums. Here, the structures are trickier, but the hooks remain airtight. “Electricityscape” delves with restless minor key segments that break away to glistening bridges before returning to the song’s central guitar riff. More or less complimented by Casablancas’ croon, “Heart in a Cage” swings hard, building momentum fast with thrilling arpeggios played on guitar that sets the song sailing. Perhaps the biggest departure is “Ask Me Anything,” a chamber piece without drums where Casablancas sings aided by computerized strings that give his testimony of shyness a reflective touch.

If there’s someone who can wring out several meanings out of a single phrase repeated over and over, it’s this lead singer. His lyrics, however simple, remain mired in self-disgust and disillusionment. When he bellows the phrase “you’re no fun” repeatedly (“Fear of Sleep”), the accusation turns into an individual testimony. His slouched way of singing remains his most deceptive instrument. On the song “On the Other Side,” he stretches out phrases like “I’m tired of everyone I know” in slow motion, so every syllable is given painfully rendered. At first listen, the song is a drag, just one long complaint until the corner is turned and Casablancas admits, “I hate myself for hating them.”

He packs a lot of emotive power in his voice. These days, while most male lead singers either scream or pout, Casablancas is a true crooner who colors these songs with deep and complex emotions. “The world is in your hand/or it’s at your throat,” he sings (“Razorblade”), continually sounding like he’s about to strike a tripwire. That sense of dark tension ripples through this album, presenting a band that is brazenly confident but also not afraid to hide its scars.

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