The Strokes' latest record, First Impressions of Earth, is highly anticipated, and understandably so, given the band's proven ability to pen songs about love and angst with infectious downbeats and lead singer Julian Casablancas's plaintive growls. The timing of the release -- January 3 of the brand new year -- is prime time for music fans chomping at the bit to catch the first of this year's golden sounds, the only big-name release this week.
Unfortunately, First Impressions falls into the same trap that at least half of the average person's New Years resolutions do: The promise of self-actualization is met with the all-too-ordinary failure of those aims to be consummated.This record is full of promises unfulfilled, beginnings of songs that sound like happy rock and roll explosions only to dawdle and shift uneasily in their own skins.
Rather than the lo-fi, garage aesthetic of their previous records, First Impressions sees the band self-consciously shying away from their former swagger with the intention of sounding serious and grown-up, trading in their '60s garage energy for a thicker, ponderous '70s metal-pop hybrid. The result bears witness to the group's utterly awkward growing pains. This is laborious rather than a labor of love, with scattered musical direction, uninspired lyrics and a tone that seems like the manager said it was time for re-branding the band. In fact, the more one listens to this record, the more one senses the band had not an ounce of fun recording this thing. It's a disappointment, for fans including myself, and for this otherwise talented band.
What made the Strokes' previous records so irresistible (no matter your beef with the band's mass popularity, three-chord songs, or what others have derisively called a derivative style) was their full-on garage aesthetic -- loose, reckless, and palpably energetic, with jangling guitars, tight rock beats, shaking tambourines, and J. Casablancas's improbably likeable cavalier rock and roll attitude. It makes sense, then, that the few saving graces on First Impressions are the tracks that reflect these strengths. "Razorblade" has the playful guitar twang, swaggering vocals, and shaking tambourine that helped define the Strokes' garage appeal. Similarly, "Red Light" and "15 Minutes" also have a punchy, tight sound, with Casablancas buoyantly singing love or lust stories with tongue-in-cheek world-weariness.
Other than these brighter spots, the rest of the record is an exercise in trying too hard to make musical advancements and consequently ending up sounding contrived, half-hearted, and forced as a result. One of the superficial changes -- a longer average track length -- reflects the misguided belief that if you slow songs down and make them longer, they'll somehow exude seriousness. (And it's clear, even from the album title and cover art, that it's seriousness the Strokes' are out to prove). Unfortunately, it just makes what would have been perfectly worthy short songs into longer songs that drag with the slowed tempos and end up repeating more verses. The sheer repetition is one of this album's most irritating, and entirely avoidable, faults.
Take the opening track "You Only Live Once," which would have been a perfectly decent song if the band had not consciously tried to force a different sound by slowing the tempo and elongating the vocals. It's not the worst track on the record, but it's an opening track that I wouldn't have expected from the band. The first time I heard it, all I could think of was that the drums should be playing at least two times faster, and that the band was sounding eerily like the banal and offensively formulaic Coldplay. Indeed, the Strokes begin to resemble Coldplay in its attempts to sound earnest and serious without having anything of interest to say. And for a record that aspires to be the Strokes' dark and serious record, lyrically the band is in bad shape. They could have tried a little harder to think of things to write about. On "Ask My Anything," Casablancas sings, "I've got nothing to say" over and over again. That's not a figurative, existential statement, just the plain truth, at least on this record.
Stylistically, too, the record is a mess. The drums are a telling indication of indecisive musical direction. Half the time, they sound lost and awkward, as on "Evening Sun," where the band inexplicably tries its hand at a rock-waltz beat. And there are the guitars and vocals, which in their attempt to sound grim and full of meaning in "Juicebox" and "Heart in a Cage" instead sound contrived. Worse still, "Heart in a Cage" is also an example of the Strokes unsuccessful dabbling of several different styles within one single track -- yet another sign that the Strokes are stricken with an unhappy mix of ambition and not knowing what to do with it.
The band loses much ground on First Impressions. Rather than an expansion on its sound, the record sees the Strokes lost in a rock and roll no-man's-land, making a morose and "grown up" album with '70s overtones and thick glosses. Bands should always follow their own instincts: the Strokes' old youthful energy and pop sensibility are real strengths, and it would do them no harm to find another way of channeling their winning blend of lo-fi garage, '60s beats, and shaking tambourines into something truly evolved and mature rather than a record like First Impressions that masquerades as such. As for the eager music-lovers waiting to discover the new golden sounds of 2006, it looks like you'll have to wait a bit longer for the first arrival. - Christine Back Ms. Back lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with three guitars, a 1950s Mason & Hamlin piano, and a beagle. When not studying legal doctrine and social justice law, she fronts the indie-rock band Que Verde and dabbles in art, film, and writing projects.