CD Review of First Impressions of Earth by The Stroke

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First Impressions of Earth
starstarstarstarno star Label: RCA
Released: 2006
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It’s hard being a ‘The’ band these days. A few years ago, of course, ‘The’ bands (the Hives, the Vines, the White Stripes, the Datsuns, the Stills, the Thrills, the Kills, Mike Mills, the Rakes, the Brakes, the Jonathan Frakes) were the height of fashion, once the record buying public burned out on the ‘Number’ bands (Matchbox Twenty, Stroke 9, Eve 6, Marvelous 3, Maroon 5, Nine Days, Blink 182, 3 Doors Down, Five for Fighting, Seven Mary Three, Red 5). Nowadays, the ‘The’ and ‘Number’ bands have their own, substantial plots in the Rock & Roll Boneyard, with only a handful from each subgroup still around to flip a bony, tattooed middle finger in Death’s direction.

And don’t think that the Strokes don’t know that their new record, First Impressions of Earth, is being watched with a hairy eye. After all, they started this whole ‘The’ thing (or so we in the lapdog press will tell you), and if they felt enough pressure on their sophomore record, Room on Fire, to sack Nigel freaking Godrich as their producer, you can bet your sweet bippy that they’re feeling the heat now that the ‘The’ bands are getting picked off by the Next Next Next British Invasion bands (Hard-Fi, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand). Is there any room for the Strokes in a ‘The’-hostile environment?

You bet there is. If Is This It? was the sound of a band that was trying too hard to be cool, and Room on Fire was that same band pulling a “Jackie Brown” (“See how cool we are? We didn’t even try to impress you, we just made a record that we would like.”), then First Impressions of Earth is the sound of a band knowing that it’s time to put up or shut up. It has that trademark Strokes thing going on, but it’s looser, groovier, with much more attention being paid to the actual playing of the songs than they had previously shown.

Two seconds into the opening track “You Only Live Once,” and you can see where things are going. The drums are vintage Blondie, with singer and primary songwriter Julian Casablancas turning in one of his more tender performances, relatively speaking. The verses of leadoff single “Juicebox,” meanwhile, could have Franz Ferdinand calling their lawyers, and “Electricityscape” sounds like a tribute to Muse’s “Stockholm Syndrome.” As you can see from those comparisons, the album is, if not light, at least more light-hearted than their previous albums, and the change does them good. In fact, the chorus of “Razorblade” comes dangerously close to cribbing Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” of all things.

Then again, maybe the lighter material was by design to make Casablancas’ pitch-black lyrics easier to swallow. Take “On the Other Side,” for example: “I’m tired of everyone I know / Of everyone I see / On the other side, nobody’s waiting for me / I hate them all. I hate them all.” He changes tune midway through the song, admitting, “I hate myself for hating them, so I’ll drink some more / I love them all.” Soon after, though, he drinks more, and of course hates them more than he did before. Then there’s the line from “Razorblade”: “You won’t say it now, but in your heart it’s loud / ‘Oh no, my feelings are more important than yours. Drop dead, I don’t care, I won’t worry.’” Ouch.

The best example of the band’s emphasis on their playing, besides “Electricityscape” (the guitars on that song are downright Byrdsy) has to be “Vision of Division,” which sports a guitar bit in the middle break that is equal parts “Hava Nageela” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” Whatever it is, it’s the most ambitious musicianship the band’s ever exhibited. The boys even play with a cello quartet, as in solo “Eleanor Rigby” style, not every other nü-metal song from the last five years (I’m trying to find out exactly who played on this, but the liner notes are making me dizzy), on the gorgeous but melancholy “Ask Me Anything,” and “Killing Lies” is, if nothing else, an exercise in melody over attitude, using a six-chord progression over and over again the way Pulp used three chords in “Common People” (though it’s not quite as explosive as the Pulp song). Still, it’s a considerable evolution from the band’s first two albums, which were more ‘get in, get out, move on’ than anything else.

First Impressions of Earth is the album that many were probably expecting from the Strokes the last time around, and while it would have been nice to receive this album back then, it is unreasonable to expect such a radical leap in maturity from such a highly touted band in such a short period of time. The truth is that the bands who make those exponential leaps in quality are the ones you least suspect (Blur from Leisure to Modern Life Is Rubbish, ‘Til Tuesday from Voices Carry to Welcome Home, Talk Talk from The Party’s Over to It’s My Life). Then again, Franz Ferdinand lived up to their end of the bargain on their last album, so maybe we’re giving the Strokes a pass. Fine, we’re giving the Strokes a pass. No matter how you slice it, this was a do-or-die album for them, and they stepped up big time.

~David Medsker