First Impressions of Earth
wo albums of jerkily concise NYC garage punk about shagging people of indiscriminate sex and morality in unpleasant alleyways made it seem as if The Strokes had run the course of their one idea as far as it would go. Room on Fire isn’t bad; it’s just similar, but less punchy and less catchy, and therefore may as well not exist. Julian mutters through a sponge, Valensi plays a riff on a guitar made from a cornflakes box, whichever one is the drummer does an impression of a badly-programmed drum machine, and the other two play exactly the same thing on rhythm and bass guitars for 2:25. Sure it was sassy, but was that it?
The Strokes, still effortlessly better than, say, Babyshambles, faced a simple choice for their third album: evolve or die. The alarmingly great “Juicebox,” rated-R-Scooby-Doo-chase-scene-bass and upfront, lusty holler, suggests that they picked the former option, which is the correct one. It’s raw yet modern, bulky enough to be dropped in a club where all the kids aren’t just wearing drainpipes and their fathers’ old jackets. It’s the first tune by them that’s seized me on first listen rather than second (or fifth), and the rather short-sighted timing of its release is the only thing that prevented it ripping up “single of the year” polls here, there, and everywhere.
Sadly it’s a bit of a curveball, and doesn’t fully represent its bedfellows on First Impressions of Earth. Sure, new producer David Kahne has bulked up their sound, making their previously lightweight, style-over-substance scrape into a weighty attack which means that opener “You Only Live Once” kicks in (literally) with a degree of pleasurable and unexpected force. It’s followed quickly by “Juicebox” and the meandering “Heart In A Cage” (“I’m stuck in a city / But I belong in a field”) making for an excellent opening triptych, even if the next track (“Razor Blade”) does nick the riff from “Mandy” by ol’ big nose.
The fact still remains that The Strokes don’t mean anything, and they never have. “On The Other Side” seems at first glance to be about, gasp, sleeping with groupies (“I hate them all / And I hate myself for hating them”). It’s hardly an untouched topic for rumination in rock. Julian can toss great lines like “I love you more than being seventeen” around but that’s all they are—incidental. At least they’re aware of their vapidity though. “Ask Me Anything” is the love-it-or-hate-it tune, a confessional bit of cod-Eno that sounds like the Penguin Café Orchestra if they’d spent a considerable amount of time in salacious nightclubs and which sees Julian admitting that he has “nothing to say” over a repetitive melotron motif which slowly emerges into strings. It’s a touching moment, possibly the only genuinely affecting song in their canon, particularly when Julian obscurely opines that “We named our summer camp after you,” which still means precisely nada. The none-more-AOR drums that clatter into “Electricityscape” immediately after break the mood rather effectively…
If there are any other identifiable problems with The Strokes it’s that they’re not quite the songwriters they might think, and when the pace slows melodies often seem to veer into dirge, while the fuller sound and longer songs have resulted in an occasionally obstreperous approach to guitar solos (just check the ostentatious mess two minutes into the angry, impatient “Vision Of Division”). They are also, no doubt to a certain type of fan’s delight, still very much rooted in a homogenous musical template—for all the talk of evolution and experimentation this still sounds like a Strokes record first and foremost. “Evening Sun” is more tender, perhaps, “Juicebox” more aggressively and progressively powerful and “Ask Me Anything” certainly couldn’t be off Is This It, but they still draw almost every ounce of their aesthetic from that 1978-1982 period, a sound which has been mined to death and then some by the host of crapulent wasters who flourished in their slipstream. It sounded fresh five years ago, but even with the additions and twists added here it seems passé in 2006.
The seismic hype that accompanied their first couple of singles and debut album (in the UK at least) made The Strokes out to be saviours of the world. If they are, then it’s a pretty wretched world. The Strokes are a good band and First Impressions of Earth is the first pretty good album of the year.