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Onward Into the Audioscape

The Strokes upgrade their cute dishevelment but leave a few too many sexy hooks behind

Make-or-break may be too heavy a responsibility to hang on the Strokes' third LP, First Impressions of Earth, but it's hard not to think of the album as a harbinger of the band's future. Will these perfectly disheveled society scions, who made their name combining sexy hooks with hot hairdos, continue in the cute Velveteen mold they introduced on Is This It and then refined, barely, on the tepidly received Room on Fire, or will they try something new? They might even branch out and grow up, thus risking their status as the coolest and catchiest band on the block.

At 14 songs and a positively hip-hop 52 minutes, and accompanied by a thick booklet of vaguely Germanic, retro-futuristic liner notes, First Impressions of Earth looks and feels self-consciously important on mass alone. Moreover, there's music to match. No longer a blur of taut arrangements and slack vocals, the songs now flaunt the labor put into them. "Heart in a Cage" is a densely wrought latticework of Maiden-approved solos and martial rhythms, "Ask Me Anything" casts Julian Casablancas's barroom baritone into an audioscape of video game strings and ketamined "Sweet Child O' Mine" guitar lines, while "Vision of Division" is a suffocating swirl of industrial squall and stiff robo-skank. In stark contrast to the raw, stripped-down ethos that gave past tracks like "Hard to Explain" and "You Talk Way Too Much" their invigorating hit-and-run kick, the band now careens from section to section, up and over the four-minute mountain.

Welcome to the Strokes v. 3.0, where everything is clearer, faster, and sharper. Recording for the first time without producer and paterfamilias Gordon Raphael, the band, with pop hitmaker David Kahne behind the boards, has traded in the scuzzy aerosol-on-concrete sound of yore in favor of the clearer, seamless, and less forgiving surface of colored Plexiglas. The band does clean up purty, however, especially guitarists Albert Hammond and Nick Valensi, who prove first-rate guitar wolves in secondhand sheepskin. The sonic spit and polish even seems to have opened something up in Casablancas, who's shed a layer of emotional artifice along with the megaphone-muddied spew of "NYC Cops" for a clearer Iggy-in-Berlin croon. His discovery of the world between hipper-than-thou sprechgesang and petulant shouting brings a new nuance and even maturity to Casablancas's vocals. For the first time, Jules sounds equally convincing as an unrepentant narcissist ("Razorblade": "my feelings are more important than yours") and a humbled hipster ("Ask Me Anything": "I've got nothing to say, I've got nothing to give").

Clearer, faster, and sharper, but the 14 songs last as long as a hip-hop album
photo: Nasty Little Man
Clearer, faster, and sharper, but the 14 songs last as long as a hip-hop album

Too bad about those sexy hooks. First Impressions of Earthis the sound of the Strokes taking a formal, technical, and emotional leap forward, but leaving the tunes behind. There's nothing on the album that sticks in the brain with the buzzing insistence of "Last Nite" or "12:51." In ponytail parlance, I don't hear a hit, and the decaffeinated reaction to the lead single, the "Peter Gunn" homage "Juicebox," suggests that I'm not alone. By following their muse into a maze of shiny technophilia and knotty songcraft, the Strokes have largely sacrificed the melodicism that put them over.

It's hard to fault a band that wants to be seen as something more than mere three-minute single-slingers (and/or yesterday's news), but the Strokes' artistic ambition has caused them to ignore the overlap between art and the chart. Because they wear their creative hubris well—and because I know they can write catchy songs—I'll say that First Impressions gives reason to think the Strokes are capable of delivering an album that yields both muso plaudits and radio sing-alongs. But I'll also say I've listened to the album more times than I care to admit and still can't remember one damn chorus.

 
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