The Strokes - First Impressions Of Earth
Alex Worsnip 02/01/2006
Some albums get popular because of marketing; some get popular because of fashion; some get popular because there are a lot of people out there with abhorrent taste in music. And others get popular because they ooze quality. So it was with 'Is This It', The Strokes' debut. Sure, it was also derivative, but at least it was derivative of something that was, firstly, good, and secondly, hadn't been aped in a while. Sure, there's been a backlash since - what popular album hasn't suffered a backlash? - but this came mainly from people who couldn't let go of late 90s British indie, which was for the most part (not, of course, entirely) the stagnant aftermath of Britpop and, without an intervention from some such band, could have spelled the death of guitar music in the mainstream. (Of course, these people have almost all now embraced many of the wave of bands that The Strokes helped to spawn). The second album, however, was a largely pointless rehash of the sound of the first.
So, it's about time for a change of tack. And the first good news is that there's been one. This was apparent from the storming first single 'Juicebox', one of their best songs ever. Like all the best rock songs, it sounds like there's not a note in it that isn't doing something necessary. The structure holds it together perfectly, the melody is excellent, the guitars are artfully used in a range of ways, and Casablancas' vocals are spot on: he knows when to let out the deranged howl, but keeps the performance controlled, and shows good range. It sounded like The Strokes were back with a passion, ready to deliver what should have been the second album: a more widescreen, technicolour affair that would see them branch out a bit. Reports, though, had it that 'Juicebox' was a red herring, a much rockier track than the rest of the album, which stuck to the classic sound. The good news is that this isn't the case. Released from the (deliberately) retro, slightly muted production of the earlier material, presumably the influence of Gordon Raphael, 'First Impressions Of Earth' sounds much more direct and the guitars have the freedom to expand a bit, the classic style of which also drives home the fact that at their heart The Strokes are a rock 'n' roll band, not exponents of some trendier-than-thou sub-genre.
The bad news is that, nevertheless, 'Juicebox' is the best track on the album by far. The chief problem here is that, although The Strokes get as far as finding an interesting idea or new sound for several songs, the songwriting underneath just doesn't live up to expectations, and the new direction becomes a somewhat limp veneer. 'On The Other Side', for example, opens with a menacing bassline and quasi-disco beat, but the melody turns out to be lazy and predictable, Casablancas sounding like he could have written it in his sleep - B-side material at best. '15 Minutes' makes an initially interesting foray into jangly, melodious guitar work but ends up an unfocused mess, moving from a tuneless, drunken slow rant to a tuneless, drunken fast brawl in a not exactly seemless fashion. Elsewhere, new tacks just don't work: the relentless 'Vision of Division' sees Casablancas attempting to compensate for songwriting quality by bellowing with ever-increasing volume to slightly ridiculous Middle Eastern-style guitars, while 'Ask Me Anything', a solo piece with mellotron, is simply inexplicable and doesn't work at all.
Elsewhere, there are moments of greater success. 'Heart In A Cage' is a rollicking proto-punk-style cut that skips along on a 6/8 beat and sounds cool as fuck, and is easily the best track here bar 'Juicebox'. Opener 'You Only Live Once' is a well-constructed opener, but it seems more like something that's going to reveal further delights than a standout in itself (much like the title-track off 'Is This It' - the difference is, there it did). And tracks like 'Ize Of The World' successfully resurrect the old sound with the newer production, but aren't exactly groundbreaking. It's a shame, because I really felt that this album could be The Strokes getting back on track: adapting, whilst remaining the same band. The seeds of such an album are here, but at 14 tracks, it needs trimming, and the positive ideas of many songs need to be exploited better. It's still better than Room On Fire - where the songwriting quality was no better, but the sound was less imaginative - but we'll still have to wait for that second classic album. It's in them somewhere.