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Polished sound leads to Stroke of success

Observer Scene | Thursday, January 26, 2006

Molly: In the last few years, The Strokes have been better known for having a member date Drew Barrymore and for suffering from the sophomore slump than for actually producing music. Fortunately, the band’s latest effort, “First Impressions of Earth,” is making it known once again for music instead of outside forces.

The Strokes burst onto the music scene with its album “Is This It,” which spawned the simple but catchy hit “Last Nite.” They, along with bands like the White Stripes, were alternately hailed as a return to the stripped-down roots of rock and denounced as pale imitations of its musical predecessors.

“Room on Fire,” the band’s follow-up to its first album, didn’t receive the critical raves or record sales that the previous one garnered. This caused many to feel the band was more the part of a garage-band fad than a legitimate musical act.

The band’s third album, “First Impressions of Earth,” both showcases the band’s musical talent and reveals it to have matured a great deal since its first album. There is still a stripped-down quality to the music, but the melodies and production have improved a great deal.

“First Impressions of Earth” can’t fairly be called the Strokes’ return to form – the sound is too different from their earlier albums. It is more accurately a picture of a constantly evolving, and improving, band.

The record starts with the catchy “You Only Live Once,” which instantly reveals the more polished and melodic sound that characterizes the album as a whole. The band then kicks into the album’s first single, “Juicebox,” which is a surprising blend of the Strokes’ normal garage-band sounds with a hard-rocking edge. While usually classified as a rock band, this is the first time that the Strokes have really had a song that had that harder, faster “rock” quality.

One of the best songs on the album is “Heart in a Cage,” which displays jumps around between grooves and melodies to create an entirely catchy and better-with-every-listen kind of song. By the time lead singer Julian Casablancas is screaming, “We gotta laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh,” you can’t help but stomp your feet along with the song.

“Razorblade,” part of which sounds uncannily like Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” displays the fact that lead singer Julian Casablancas’s voice is better suited to rock songs that the quasi-ballads. The song itself isn’t bad, but it is one of the weaker spots on the album.

Another feeble song is the slightly atonal “Ask Me Anything.” It starts out a strange synthesizer sound, which would be alright as an introduction, but doesn’t work as the background for the whole song. While listening to it, one keeps expecting the melody to change tempo and kick into a better, faster song, but that move never happens and the song falls flat.

Songs like “Ize of the World” sound like old Strokes songs with a little more polish, and others like “Red Light” seem to take that old sound in a slightly new direction.

Overall, the album is getting the Strokes the well-deserved attention and respect that they deserve as a band. They return to form on songs like “You Only Live Once” and move into new territory as a band with works like “Juicebox” and “Heart in a Cage.” The band maintains the same energy it’s always had, but it harnesses that energy in a much more effective direction.

Kelly: Initially, The Strokes’ “First Impressions of the Earth” is rather disappointing. The songs, at times, sound foreign and very un-Strokes-like, going so far as to resemble bands with lesser credibility such as 2004’s euro-darlings Franz Ferdinand and American up-and-comers The Bravery.

The Strokes’ first album, “Is This It,” captured the hearts of indie-rock-loving young America upon its release. The band’s appeal is that it harks back to a time when art rock was in vogue and music as merely a media through which to sell sex was scoffed at. The Strokes, in reawakening the notion that rock music is essential and didn’t really die in 1994, emerged as the hot new rock band of our generation.

Offering a juxtaposition of originality alongside familiarity, the Strokes are a band that, whether one grew up on the Velvet Underground or Nirvana (or, better, both), could relate to and appreciate. Even the band’s sophomore album, “Room on Fire,” was a surprisingly good and utterly under-rated musical diamond in the rough – an album that must grow on the listener, that the listener must put effort into before being able to leisurely enjoy.

“First Impressions of the Earth” is similar to the second album in that it requires the same commitment required to appreciate the group’s previous effort. But once familiarity has been achieved, the listener cannot help but become fond of this album, even if it is clear the lyrical content has not noticeably evolved, even after the band’s years of progress.

On “First Impressions,” the Strokes do not sound more polished, per se, but (for good or for bad) have lost a lot of the fuzzy, raw, cheap-amp-stacked-in-an-uninsulated-garage guitar sound that had become the trait for which their music was best known.

Additionally disappointing is that Julian’s voice has lost its distance and hazy sound and at times – only at times – takes on a twinge of wannabe euro-trash faux accent (a la Brandon Flowers).

So who is this group and what have they done with the five-man band of slouchy, New York garage rockers we love? Oh, they’re still around, even if their presence has been recreated into one that is not as apparent as it has been in the past because of the more polished overall production sound.

The opening track, “You Only Live Once,” features the band’s trademark repetition of simplistic yet catchy guitar lines and solos while hit single “Juicebox” rebels against tradition with a predominantly electronic-sounding accompaniment and clearer vocal lines which make it different from any other Strokes material heard until now. “Vision of Division” seems to achieve the perfect balance between the precedented sound of the Strokes’ first two albums and their desire to explore new ground as creators of music.

Strong beats, racing series of guitar chords and a loud-soft duality are reminiscent of the band’s previous sounds while the song climaxes during an unexpected guitar solo which, coming from nearly out of nowhere, lends a completely fresh and exotic quality to the piece that would have been unachievable by the expectations and formulaic style of the previous two albums.

While it may take a few listens to develop an affinity for the new sound, “First Impressions of the Earth” is very likable as the Strokes’ attempt to get outside of the “Is This It” box.