Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

The Strokes -- First Impressions of Earth
RCA Records; 2006

After The Strokes released Room On Fire, its follow-up to debut, Is This It?, audiences and critics alike politely smiled and scrunched up their noses. Room was very similar to its predecessor, and all the subtle refinements the band made were hastily overlooked. If the band's new record, First Impressions of Earth, is any indication, The Strokes took the hint. Like hipsters given a key to the local liquor store, the boys treated themselves to satisfying all their musical whims. There was no chance Impressions would garner direct comparisons to the group's past output.

The risk associated with venturing into distant sonic territory is scaring away fans like flighty white-tailed deer. Accordingly, Impressions is likely to be an album that discerns who is interested in The Strokes’ artistic vision and who just liked the band’s taste in clothing. It’s a startlingly intimate look at a songwriter redefining his comfort zone and a band gripping tighter to its talents and aspirations. Impressions finds the group at its most ambitious and least referential; 14 uncompromising and varied songs that are as much for the band’s edification as the listener’s.

Impressions opens with the shimmering "You Only Live Once," a track so lovingly status quo for The Strokes it serves as a bookend for the band's past and a warm welcome back to fans. Of course, this doesn't last. "Juicebox" follows it with an unexpected blow to the gut as the band thrashes through a mind-bending combination of Batman theme song and pop prog-rock. The album winds through nerve-wracking guitar assaults, bipolar shifts between pleading coos and throat-wrenching yells and cheerful chats on self-mutilation without so much as batting an eye.

All of these radical departures sound shocking out of context, but come together well with the all-too-capable Strokes at the helm. Julian Casablancas, the band's sole songwriter and mouthpiece, writes with a confident zeal that his bandmates run wild with. While Jules fires vitriolic lyrics (now without the vocal filter you love to hate), guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. boldly tackle their task of bringing his creations to life. They set an imposing tone for "Electricityscape" with dark, interlocking strums; they finger-pick tension into "Heart In A Cage"; and they turn drunken fumbles into hypnotic rhythms on "The Ize Of the World." The Strokes' rhythm section isn't exactly slouching either, powerfully setting pace for the band’s most pulse-pounding tracks yet. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti gives up sounding like a drum machine in order to clobber his kit, offering a fuller, more arresting sound. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture steps up to the plate, too, delivering his most commanding and creative performances to date.

Thematically, Impressions is a darker, more biting record. Casablancas lashes out at everyone around him with a bruised vernacular, barely sparing his new bride from the same treatment. He sounds paranoid on the brilliant "The Ize Of the World," warning someone – possibly himself? -- "I think I know what you mean but watch what you say / 'cause they'll be try to knock you down in some way." Bitterness ("Heart In A Cage") and loathing (the brutal "On the Other Side"), self-doubt ("Fear of Sleep") and self-hatred (many songs), Julian seems deeply entrenched in a troubled period of life. Compared to the almost light-hearted material that comprised the previous albums, one wonders what flicked the switch in his head to let these sardonic feelings reach paper.

The easy and most probably incomplete answer is Casablancas' love affair with booze. Instead of shelving the bottle while writing like he did on the previous albums, Julian has embraced it. The results are clear: a lack of self-conscious editing (hence all the ire), some unusually slovenly vocal performances and a newfound love of screaming himself hoarse. But combining intoxication with aspiration doesn’t always pan out golden nuggets. Wonderfully spare but lyrically uninspired, "Ask Me Anything” finds Casablancas alone with a harmonium, mumbling charming nonsense like "I've got nothing to say" and "don't be a coconut." "Killing Lies" and "Fear Of Sleep" are just as vapid and add nothing to the record. Impressions' greatest stumble is the drunken ranting of "15 Minutes," which is not unlike a 21st birthday party taking its course.

And yet, I'd rather call these missteps beauty marks instead of blemishes. In the context of the whole record, the whole scope of The Strokes as a band, these "mistakes" are meaningful and necessary. They also further elaborate on the frame of mind Julian Casablancas was in while writing. First Impressions of Earth is still a great achievement for The Strokes; it's evidence of a band growing as musicians and artists. Packed with a host of songs that rank among the band's best, Impressions is a promise that good things are still to come from this band.

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