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Divergent Impressions

 

The Strokes: First Impressions of Earth

RCA, 2006

Rating: 3.0

 

Posted: January 27, 2006

By Laurence Station

First Impressions of Earth finds the Strokes moving even further away from the short, punchy, carelessly sloppy sounds of their debut Is This It. The band's sophomore release, Room On Fire, smoothed some of those rough edges but retained the band's gift for economy and appealingly angular hooks. Producer Gordon Raphael (who assists on three tracks here) has been supplanted by the considerably more pop-oriented David Kahne (The Bangles, Sugar Ray, Sublime), resulting in an even more polished sound with a considerably more expansive tonal palette.

Whatever one's opinion of the group when it kicked its way into the cultural consciousness in 2001, it's refreshing to hear a band actively working to expand its sound -- especially a band primarily known (fairly or not) for its 1970s-influencd, too-cool-to-care vibe. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. have never sounded better, and there's a noticeably tighter interplay between the rhythm section of bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Singer Julian Casablancas even attempts to broaden his limited vocal horizons.

So what's not to like? Well, for one thing, the bloat of too much filler padding the record to nearly double that of either of the first two Strokes records. More importantly, First Impressions never settles on a consistent vibe. The chugging "Juicebox" recreates Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" theme. "Razorblade" has a multi-guitar opener worthy of the Marshall Tucker Band. The oddball "Ask Me Anything" overdoses on Mellotron. And there's a very un-Strokes-like prog breakout in the middle of "Vision of Division." It's as if the Strokes are determined to prove they have the chops to play more than disaffected NYC garage-pop.

And perhaps they do. But Casablancas' lyrical observations simply don't translate as well when scattered across such a diverse array of styles. No matter how impressive the production, there's no helping insights like this one from "Fear of Sleep": "I was hiding from the world / I was a squirrel / But you chopped down my tree to get my fur."

In fact, First Impressions seems to suggest that for the Strokes, growth also means growing apart. It's difficult to listen to the album without coming away with the impression that it should really be two different records. Casablancas' disaffected monotone increasingly seems to belong on a different record from the assured sounds of a band slowly feeling its way out of its pigeonhole. Dare we say it? Perhaps Julian needs a new band and the Strokes need a new singer. Each half has its strengths (there is a certain charm to Casablancas' sleepy-lidded delivery), but the whole feels like the sum of two progressively divergent parts.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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