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The Mass Media

First Impressions of Strokes’ Lead Solo

I find it hard not to look at the first two Strokes albums without sentimentality. I was introduced to Is This It and Room on Fire when I was in high school, and they were effectively the soundtrack to my life for the better part of two years. I overplayed them, perhaps. Perhaps I fell victim to the criticism that the Strokes are insipid, uncreative, lacking insight. Perhaps I just thought First Impressions of Earth was terrible, and I let that feeling rub off onto my formerly beloved records. But the release of Phrazes for the Young, Julian Casablancas’ (lead singer of the Stokes) debut solo, has forced me, with glee, to reconsider the Strokes totality.

I thought I was going to be original in comparing Julian Casablancas’ debut solo to Thom Yorke’s (lead singer of Radiohead) The Eraser. But Rolling Stones beat me to it, so I can’t claim any credibility in my comparison – but I can elaborate more. Both albums similarly make a greater jump in the electronic realm than do their respective bands’ major efforts. Both albums are also less spectacular than their bands’ major works. I think they’re pretty good bands to compare, too.

While Radiohead is lauded as the most important rock band of recent years, with revolutionary albums under their catalog like The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, and the recent In Rainbows, the Strokes shine with two albums: Is This It and Room on Fire. Both bands are a quintet, but offer a very different take on music. Radiohead has always operated in this realm of complexity – absolute meticulous complexity. There’s a lot to be admired in this – and certainly Radiohead is one of the most mature bands out there. I particularly admire Thom Yorke’s lyrics. They’re imaginative and worth examining. He’s loquacious, educated, and… British.

Julian Casablancas, on the other hand isn’t nearly as meticulous or concerned about aesthetic lyrical complexity. He’s not educated. He embodies the American spirit. His songs aren’t about imaginative realms, and his vocabulary is hardly Shakespearian. He’s far more Mark Twain. Far more William Carlos Williams to Yorke’s T.S. Eliot. But that’s where I admire the Strokes more than Radiohead – they feel a lot more real. Sure, Radiohead can hit your chords right down deep, but the Strokes have always spoken to me more directly. I’ve never felt like I know Thom Yorke in the way that I know Julian Casablancas. There’s a line in Ron Power’s biography of Mark Twain that I think fits the Strokes appropriately. It talks about how Mark Twain changed the landscape of American literature, which then “ceased its labored imitation of European and Classical high discourse, and became a lean, blunt, vivid chronicle of American self-invention, from the yeasty perspective of the common man.”

Is This It is a record about Cascablancas’ drunken stupor he suffered while he was younger. This album is completely unrestricted, almost debauched – finding Casablancas’ singing about his lack of depth, his drug use, one-night-stands, and “Barely Legal” girls. But there’s also an understated feeling of dissatisfaction with his lifestyle, particularly spoken in the brilliant songs “Take It Or Leave It,” “Trying Your Luck,” and “Hard to Explain.” It’s a carefree record – musically evoking the feeling of summer in its essence. But this is more carefree than Casablancas truly wants to be.

The Stroke’s follow-up, Room on Fire is often criticized as retreating territory. I’ve never agreed, finding the music darker, a little heavier, and the lyrics more sober. Casablancas, during this album, finds himself waking up from his drunken days with the realization that there’s something more important than this. What we get isn’t the absolutely cool and carefree Casablancas of “Last Nite,” but the more complicated, hurt and frightened persona of “I Can’t Win” and “Whatever Happened?” His “Under Control” evokes a more mature individual, ruminating on a failed relationship, apologetically – a theme that will continue for the Strokes’ next album, First Impressions of Earth and Casablancas’ solo record. Room on Fire is an underrated album, one on par or surpassing Is This It.

First Impressions of Earth is a self-conscious record, and falls apart from that. We learn that Casablancas is now worrying about his lack-of-complexity that didn’t seem to bother him in “Someday” two records earlier, singing that he has “nothing to say.” This record starts out strong, but breaks down in the middle, only to pick up afterwards. I originally loved the record upon first listening, but wrote it off immediately afterward. I haven’t listened to it since, except for the wonderful “You Only Live Once.” I picked it up again after listening to Phrazes for the Young just to put it in context. First Impressions also unfortunately has gone down as a failed effort – self-conscious and eclectic. It’s another underrated work, at best eclipsing the best guitar-pop of recent years, but never reaching the levels of their previous two efforts. It’s an important album in terms of their history.

Phrazes for the Young picks up on the apologetic theme of First Impressions. The name is based on an Oscar Wilde book Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young. Casablancas has said that this record is his attempt at providing the young with philosophies that he suggests he could have used for direction in his early stages of life. He does sing about the pitfalls of alcohol, bemoaning that everything seems to fall apart when he drinks in album opener “Out of the Blue.” In the album’s highlight, “11th Dimension,” he tells us to forgive everyone, even if they’re not sorry.

It is full of pockets of wisdom, and musically full of moments of brilliance. “11th Dimension” is one of the best songs in the Strokes’ extended oeuvre. “River of Breaklights” is particularly good, and “Glass” has a very beautiful and dark sound, completely different from his main band’s work. But the album has some downers. “Ludlow St.” — an indictment on yuppies and gentrification (something that should be particularly relevant to this Somerville resident) – is an ultimately boring song. And “4 Chords of the Apocalypse” is so difficult to listen to – but has a nice message: “It’s more important to be nice than being wise.” Isn’t that perfect wisdom?

The record is good – once again full of songs that are at best better than the majority of pop songs around. But doesn’t really reach the heights of his work with the Strokes. If you’re a fan, get this record. “11th Dimension” and “Glass” are masterful songs. And, lyrically, Julian Casablancas is as open and interesting as he has ever been. Though his lyrics aren’t the most complex and poetic, sometimes it’s far more important to be open and honest than it is to be a shadowy savant. To quote “11th Dimension,” and I think that this is a particularly important lesson: “Drop your guard, you don’t have to be smart all of the time.” Life isn’t about pulling one over on someone, or trying to act smarter. Intellectualism is an overrated commodity, polarizing and pretentious. Life is about being nice, and trying hard to change the world for the better. Casablancas is realizing that now. He’s learned one lesson in particular, one that he is glad to share: when it comes to your life, in order to make a positive impact, “your faith has got to be greater than your fear.”