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Third impressions, continued

For starters, the band opted not to record with Raphael and instead went with studio vet David Kahne, whose diverse credits include Sublime, Paul McCartney, and Sugar Ray. Kahneís production is markedly slicker than Raphaelís: the drums donít sound as though they were played on a Casio; the bass is fuller and heavier; and Kahne convinced Casablancas to allow his vocals to be scraped clean of their signature layer of cruddy distortion. Also, the previously understated guitar work of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. is supplanted by embellished melodies, fancy fretwork, and even a hyper-surf-rock breakdown at one point.

But perhaps the most important difference lies in Casablancasís songwriting. The tunes are more harmonically complex, and embark on surprising stylistic and formal diversions ó no previous Strokes song exceeded the four-minute mark, whereas more than a third of the 14 songs on First Impressions do.

The album opens almost identically to Room on Fire ó a single guitar note proceeds steadily over a stuttering mid-tempo drum rhythm ó and the song "You Only Live Once," with its simple hook and straight-ahead structure, is one of the most Strokes-ian of the lot. But donít get too comfortable in Déjà Vu Land, because before you can say "redux," the albumís lead single, "Juicebox," kicks in with its "Peter Gunn"-on-steroids riff so bizarrely similar to the Henry Mancini TV-spy theme that it sounds as if the band might be kidding. On the other hand, the B section is as pretty as it is propulsive, but seems as though itís part of another song.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the album is similarly disjointed. The band are uncharacteristically exploratory, but they donít always know how to navigate unfamiliar terrain. To borrow Casablancasís own words, from "Vision of Division," they know what to change, but not in what way.

Throughout First Impressions, the band alternately get in their own way and wallow aimlessly in humdrum monotony. Heavy-metal guitar wankery taints the otherwise compelling "Heart in a Cage," which is driven by an energetic 6/8 rhythm and a keenly ominous bass riff. "On the Other Side" is a plodding, reggae-tinged tune that treads clumsily from minor to major keys. "Ask Me Anything" is the first Strokes song based on something other than guitars and drums ó Casablancas sings over a lone Mellotron ó but like a lot of the songs on the album, it comes off as uninspired, unexciting, and ultimately disappointing.

Thatís not to say thereís nothing redeemable here. The mid-tempo "Razorblade" features a catchy guitar melody, which Casablancasís vocals catch up with at the climax ó an album high point. The song also finds Casablancas pilfering from an unlikely source: the chorus cops its melody directly from the Scott English/Richard KerrĖpenned "Mandy," which was a Barry Manilow hit in 1975. Somehow it works. Another highlight is the anthemic new-wave-meets-hair-metal "Electricityscape" ó think Duran Duran covering Starship with Tommy Lee on drums. As if to emphasize its un-Strokes-ness, Casablancas sings, "For now I think that Iíll just borrow all the chords from that song and all the words from that other song."

At least heís not borrowing from his own songs again. And thatís just about the best thing that can be said about First Impressions. Sure, it has its memorable moments and a handful of great songs, but itís by no means a great album, especially compared with the latest from the Strokesí comrades in the retro-rock revival of the early part of the decade, the Hives and the White Stripes. The airtight, criminally underrated Tyrannosaurus Hives (Interscope) finds the supercilious Swedes refining their garage-punk craft to near perfection. On the other hand, guitar hero Jack White all but forgoes the electric six-string on his bandís new Get Behind Me Satan (V2), and the result is an eclectic artistic breakthrough. Maybe thatís what the Strokes had in mind for First Impressions. Unfortunately, the results sound like a band desperately trying to find their identity.

In his Ink Blot magazine review of Is This It, Jesse Fahnestock predicted the Strokes would either " Ďprogressí into capable musicians making boring music, or theyíll release another album that sounds like this one and weíll laugh and wonder why we liked them in the first place." With Room on Fire, they did the latter; with First Impressions of Earth, theyíve done the former. So, will Is This It remain their definitive statement? On "Ask Me Anything," Casablancas sings about having nothing to sing about. "Iíve got nothing to say," he moans more than a dozen times in less than three minutes. Fortunately, his bandís third album is just promising enough to keep us holding our breath to see if he eventually finds his voice.

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Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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