The Strokes – First Impressions of Earth

The Strokes
First Impressions of Earth

Say what you will, The Strokes have been one of the most consistently excellent bands over the last few years. If you dive through the sedimentary layers of industry cant and the cursed miasma of hype, you’ll find a tightly crystallized, highly qualified group of musicians that can write good music, plain and simple.

Regardless, people of all stripes haven’t hesitated from launching critical barbs in the band’s direction. Complaints lodged against The Strokes include, but are not limited to: they can’t play their instruments; they are too trendy; Julian Casablancas’ lyrics are vapid; their names are all pretty ridiculous (okay, this one’s legit); and last, but certainly not least, they’re rich. What do they need all this money from MTV for? They’re the children of elite New York prep-school-pushing parents. Well, kids, life ain’t fair, and sometimes even the rich are born talented.

Still, though, one can’t help but feel that the stolid confidence of The Strokes has been slowly eroded over the last few years by the sharp acidity of their critics’ words. Apparent in 2003’s Room on Fire was a determined attempt to prove ’em wrong, most notably with, like, guitar riffs and stuff. That trend continues on First Impressions of Earth; witness the furious scale riff in “Heart in a Box.” Fab Moretti’s drums, too, have taken on a more dynamic character since the relatively vanilla beats of Is This It. Luckily, on most of the album, these flourishes don’t detract from the band’s no-nonsense writing style – never is a tight rhythm forsaken for technical noodling (Mars Volta, I’m looking at you).

So what’s the album like? Well, I’ve got good and bad news. It starts off very strongly. “You Only Live Once” is pretty standard Strokes fair, but Mr. Casablancas attempts to shake off his reputation for ‘disaffected’ singing with a few Mick Jaegger-esque soulful yelps. “Juicebox” is an excellent romp featuring a malevolent opening riff and drums that open up into hi-hat-driven glory.

“Heart in a Cage” and “Razorblade” are some of the most fully-realized Strokes sound in recent memory. The former is led by pounding drums and a simple guitar lick, colored in intermittently with the aforementioned riff. “Razorblade” is a rollicking number most notable for its extremely effective rolling guitar line and some of Casablancas’ best work yet. Skip over the disastrously meandering “On the Other Side,” and you’ve got some more gems. “Vision of Division” is perhaps the most intense Strokes song to date, while in “Electricityscape,” Mr. Moretti treats us to one of those cool drum-roll beats that Muse uses in every song the band writes.

In probably the biggest surprise on the album, the band slows down and strips down for “Ask Me Anything,” an obvious response to the frequent criticism of the banality of Casablancas’ lyrics. Crooning such cryptic lines as “Don’t be a coconut / God is trying to talk to you,” Casablancas leads gently into the chorus of “I’ve got nothing to say.” Honest at best and defensive at worst, I’m not quite sure what to make of the lyrics, even if the song is pretty good.

The album would be yet another trademark Strokes outing if not for its glaring inconsistency in the later tracks. “Killing Lies” sounds like a Strokes cover of The Walkmen. “Fear of Sleep” wanders aimlessly for four minutes. Casablancas sounds as if he’s making it up as he goes along on the frustrating “Evening Sun.” And, as previously mentioned, “On the Other Side” is, in all respects, just not a good song. So what are we left with? Well, perhaps the most frustrating kind of release for a band of the quality and magnitude of The Strokes: it doesn’t dare to be outright bad, and it aspires to be quite good, but it falls somewhere in the middle. I could say that the band is in a mid-life crisis, but I don’t like ending reviews in cliché.

Get it?