Thursday, October 29, 2009

Julian Casablancas' "Phrazes for the Young"

Rating: 4/5

So I don’t know about you, but I miss The Strokes.
After the brilliant one-two punch of their landmark debut “Is This It?” followed by its (slightly better, imo) sequel, “Room on Fire”, fans were thrown for a loop with 2006’s “First Impressions of Earth”. Taking risks is a great thing for any band, but when the bat and ball don’t connect like they should, that’s called a strike, plain and simple.

And then there was collective silence from The Strokes, with individual side projects undertaken, and vague and increasingly pessimistic-sounding status updates coming down the pipe every once in a while. And now, three years since their last record, lead singer/chief songwriter Julian Casablancas releases “Phrazes for the Young,” his first solo album. And to be honest, I don’t think many people are expecting much from this record, such is the power of The Strokes as a band; Casablancas successfully going solo just can’t be a good thing for a band in which he writes basically all of the material. And one listen to Phrazes for the Young makes it very clear that those fears may actually be justified.

The most shocking thing about Phrazes for the Young is how truly fresh it is; it’s not a rehash of The Strokes material, and it’s not some ill-conceived, cringe-worthy image and sound overhaul either (*cough*...Chris Cornell?). First track “Out of the Blue” and “River of Brakelights” are about as close as the record gets to anything truly reminiscent of The Strokes’ material, beyond Casablancas’ wonderful, trademark croon, which is as infectious and haunting as ever. But even those songs lean far more to the future than the past, with the incredible “River of Brakelights” beginning with glitchy, stuttering drum programming and reaching its climax with an epic, industrial-tinged chorus. Elsewhere, the soulful “4 Chords of the Apocalypse” is a definite stand out, sounding like Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” produced by Trent Reznor. In other words, this is genuinely intriguing music.

Celebratory synths and a funky drum beat drive the endlessly fun and surprisingly danceable first single “11th Dimension”, and “Ludlow St”, Casablancas’ ode to the Lower East Side, may be the album’s craziest and most compelling moment, adopting a just-a-little-kooky-but-not-dumb country swagger over which the tribute is funny, fun and quite touching, actually. Later, “Glass”, anchored initially by a twitchy breakbeat and a lush bed of synths, opens up into a stunning chorus that is among the most melodic and cathartic moments on the album.

And inevitably that is precisely where Casablancas’ strength as always been; the incredible melodies. That was the backbone of The Strokes’ addictive garage-pop sound, and it is absolutely the bread and butter of this stellar solo outing.

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