Different Strokes: Gritty New York quintet does its best to branch out on third LP
A half decade after luring rock critics back to the garage, The Strokes cast their heavy-lidded eyes on the arena. First Impressions of Earth sees the formerly concise New York quintet stretching out with frilly guitar solos, because-we-can time-signature shifts and a new producer, David Kahne, who has a proven track record getting bands like Sugar Ray and Sublime played on pop radio. (First item on Kahne’s agenda: scrub Julian Casablancas’ vocals of their signature distortion.) Where 2003’s excellent Room on Fire found the band in a holding pattern after stellar debut Is This It, The Strokes’ latest attempts a bold new statement.
To be sure, First Impressions of Earth holds some surprises for listeners expecting yet another set of streamlined downtown rock. First single “Juicebox” is the band’s heaviest yet, setting hoarse screams over an ominous, detective-show guitar riff previously lit in Weezer’s “Hash Pipe.” The rock turns harder and darker on “Heart in a Cage,” on which guitarist Nick Valensi races through scales like a prog-metal hero. “We gotta live, live, live, live, live,” Casablancas sings. Conversely, the loungey “Evening Sun” sounds like The Strokes abandoning their Lower East Side dives for merlot and smoking jackets someplace uptown. “Fifteen Minutes” leans slurringly toward The Pogues’ pub rock, complete with traces of brogue. “Vision of Divison” starts with the bombast of an ’80s monster ballad—“All that I do is wait for you”—before diverting into a Middle Eastern-tinged jam. Clearly, The Strokes aren’t confining themselves to three-minutes-and-out anymore.
Despite these new splashes of color, The Strokes paint from their usual palette, too. It helps that prior producer Gordon Raphael helms three tracks. Uptempo songs like “You Only Live Once” and “Electricityscape” still feature the ringing-guitar style The Strokes share with New York bands like The Walkmen and the French Kicks. “On the Other Side” is anchored by a disco beat straight off a Casio pre-set as Casablancas muses, perhaps half-heartedly, “I’m tired of being so judgmental of everyone.” The album’s best song, “Razor Blade,” uses more shimmering guitar work but builds into a chorus so affecting it’s hard to mind that it’s nicked from Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” of all things.
Trouble is, by the time they’re through brandishing quotations, The Strokes don’t have much of their own to say here. They even admit it. “I’ve got nothing to say,” Casablancas confides over Mellotron-like accompaniment on the album’s biggest departure, “Ask Me Anything,” which sounds like the pop-in-a-box of early Magnetic Fields, right down to Stephin Merrit’s flat vocals. Awash in once-uncharacteristic reverb, “Fear of Sleep” slowly repeats its title enough times to actually warrant it. Meanwhile, if “Juicebox” is The Strokes’ “Hash Pipe,” “The Ize of the World” is their “Island In The Sun,” but its pacific guitars give way to crescendo-ing choruses that mindlessly rhyme words ending in “-ize” until cutting off mid-word on “vaporize.” On jaunty closer “Red Light,” Casablancas complains about “a generation that has nothing to say.” He can speak for himself, but it seems any bold new statements will have to wait.