Review Summary: Julian Casablancas reminds us all why he is the only irreplacable member of The Strokes.
Since The Strokes inception in 1999 the band have had a large impact on the modern music scene, namely reigniting the retro indie rock that has been copiously copied since. On top of this the quintet have managed to reaffirm home town New York as the cultural centre of the world and even made the skinny jeans and shirt combination decidedly “cool”. The band, of course reached starry heights with their debut album Is This It
and although they are yet to equal the success and consistency of their debut, they continue to occupy the inner circles of indie stardom the world over. Following the release of their third full length First Impressions Of Earth
in 2006, the band members have split, focussing on individual releases before a fourth Strokes record. In fact due to the sluggish writing of front man Julian Casablancas there have now been more "Solo" albums from the members of the strokes than actual Strokes albums themselves, and it is this sluggishness that makes Casablancas the last of the party to release his solo recording. While guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. and Nikolai Fraiture have been rocking out in a decidedly Strokes-like manner, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti's has been mixing it up with some Brazilian flair, Casablancas has kept his solo effort in a much more shrouded light. In interviews he would talk openly enough about wanting to release a solo album, but would always throw in little snippets of how a fourth Strokes album was in the works, keeping the hype machine at bay. This secrecy has led to the somewhat overlooked release of his album Phrazes Of The Young
and on balance, it could just be the best of the bunch.
The first thing that strikes you when listening to Phrazes
is just how diverse it is. With no disrespect to the Strokes other constituent parties, Casablancas' individual effort is by far the most varied of the (now) five side-project records. Having said this Out Of The Blue
is a typical Strokes opener and on this early evidence one would be forgiven in thinking that Phrazes
is going to be just another First Impressions Of Earth
. That the mix of chugging guitars and Casablancas' trademark croon is all it takes for a song to sound vaguely Strokesish; it is shocking and more than a little disconcerting that after this four and a half minutes of reminiscence the lo-fi garage instincts disappear. With the rhythmic punk guitars all but forgotten, Casablancas starts a journey into a synth ridden world infested with a pick ‘n’ mix of instruments including, amongst everything else, a banjo. The album changes genre effortlessly, from the aforementioned indie rock of Out Of The Blue
to the synth washed Left & Right In The Dark
and even into something as unexpected as soul in 4 Chords Of The Apocalypse
. Indeed it is times like these, when Casablancas steps furthest out of his comfort zone that he produces some of his best work. The culmination of this is found in the airy heights of 11th Dimension
, an overpoweringly joyous synth-led cut that induces nostalgic memories of the 80’s in those old enough to remember such post-modern times. The crux of the track is that it relies on blissful pleasure with a heart-aching sting provided by the juxtaposition of his sombre vocals over the otherwise buoyant mood created by the synth.
Casablancas has long since proven himself adept in the art of song writing, heck he wrote the entirety of Is This It
, so it should come as no surprise that, as expected, the song writing throughout Phrazes
is nothing short of masterful. The song transitions are as smooth as you like, with the segue between Out Of The Blue
and Left & Right In The Dark
up there with the best of them. As far as the instrumental prowess goes, there are no clear weaknesses and as everything has been meticulously structured around Casablancas’ vocal strengths nothing feels out of place. This fact is highlighted even further when one realises that Casablancas played every one of the myriad of instruments displayed throughout. The lyrical themes add another dimension to Phrazes
. With three multi-platinum albums to his name it’s not unexpected of Casablancas to write thoughtful, flowing lyrics, and this is exactly what he does. From the opening statement of “Somewhere along the way, my hopefulness turned to sadness. Somewhere along the way, my sadness turned to bitterness”
the lyrics fill any gaps left in the songs and range from witty one-liners to thoughtful observations. Indeed lines such as “If you want to know somebody take a look at their best friends”
are world class and help transcend Phrazes
above the likes of Little Joy
Of course, as with any album, Phrazes
does have its faults. The most obvious flaw with Phrazes
is the song lengths. Unlike the frantic pacing of The Strokes, Casablancas has instead opted for a meandering slow-burner, however far from being a strength the dawdling emergence of Phrazes
is instead its own worst enemy. The eight tracks only cover forty minutes in length but the implementation and positioning of the tracks relative to each other make it seem closer to an hour of material which defeats the easy listening experience the album was intended for. This feat is not to dissimilar in fact to the entire second half of First Impressions Of Earth
and while the soul influence from tracks like 4 Chords Of The Apocalypse
offers a nice contrast to the spiky indie and atmospheric backbeats found on the rest of Phrazes
the overwhelming verdict is that this contrast outstays its welcome. Indeed of all the five tracks that overcome the five minute mark only one of them, the jovial and hypnotic River Of Brakelights
, actually benefits from having an extended play time. It is no surprise that the shortest song on the album is also its highlight.
Casablancas has always been the only truly irreplaceable member of The Strokes line up, valued as much for his aptitude for song writing as his vocal ability. If there were any lingering doubts that this was the case then Phrazes For The Young
all but annuls them. Throughout the record Casablancas employs a wide range of instruments to create a diverse set of songs that are strung together by his best vocal performance since Is This It
. Although ambition intermittently gets in the way of functionality the songs are remarkably consistent and work just as well individually as they do in a set. The bloated middle section suffers from Casablancas’ tendency to let songs meander for a little too long and where cutting thirty seconds or so would be the best course of action, it seems he is reluctant to waste any material. However this is a minor flaw in an otherwise watertight record that serves to remind us all why The Strokes fourth album is so highly anticipated. Of course, if one component of the machine can release an album of this quality then surely a newly oiled, reinvigorated Strokes can produce something to match their seminal Is This It
. Oh well, here’s to hoping.
Left & Right In The Dark
River Of Brakelights