The Strokes’ new album, their third, opens with a bang. After 16 drum smacks we get the glimmering electric guitars and loveably cavalier vocals that have made the band an icon of cool-kid rock. The track (“You Only Live Once”) has too much poise and luster to resist, and the same goes for the album it kicks off.
The Strokes have always made crisp and catchy music, but they’ve never played with such mesmerizing shininess. Frontman Julian Casablancas is even stirred out of his typical languor. “Nice nice nice oh oh!” he chirps in the opener, sincerely moved by the pleasures of well-crafted pop. He toes the line between coolness and buoyancy with aplomb.
Like the Strokes’ watertight debut (“Is This It”), or even Nick Lowe’s supremely polished “Pure Pop For Now People” (1978), the winning asset of “First Impressions of Earth” is its wealth of brilliantly crafted rock & roll. Three tracks after the glistening opener we get “Razorblade,” built around a grittily-strummed electric guitar on the right, attacked by bubbly soloing from the left. (Headphones heighten the battle.) Casablancas straddles the two, taking his cadence from the strumming while copping the brightness of the solo guitar.
But between those two tracks is a true dud. Most everything is bad about “Juicebox” – least of all its name, or that it’s somehow the album’s first single, or that the usually-inspired David Cross is so unfunny in its music video. The track revolves around a poseur hard rock bass line (copying Weezer’s “Hashpipe,” as if there weren’t better graves to rob). Things only get worse from there with the gushing refrain “We’ve got a city to love!” Post-Sept. 11 Big Apple polishing didn’t work for the Beastie Boys (“We come together on the subway!”), and it doesn’t work for these downtown stars either.
But besides a few tracks that sound middling before they sink in, “Juicebox” is the album’s only flaw. Nearly everything else is widely likeable, which is surely a big problem for fans that care more about the Strokes’ hipster mystique than the music itself.
Yet it’s silly to worry a band’s hipness when their music is so compelling.
Like several of the album’s best tracks, “On the Other Side” has a head-bobbing bounciness that makes for an irresistible ’80s radio smash vibe. (For the record, the Strokes succeed here in going retro without fleecing bands whose names start with “the” — the Talking Heads, the Cure or the Cars.)
“Vision of Division” has the same thrash as “Juicebox,” but it’s let loose only after a wisely-measured buildup. The song’s climax valiantly shakes the band’s trademark ennui for a winning clamor, which builds into a half-minute guitar solo (one that sounds like Black Sabbath, no less).
But the album’s bravest track, and by miles its most beautiful, is “Ask Me Anything.” Singing only over backwards cellos (or are they guitars? or a vintage synthesizer?), Casablancas channels the simple majesty of the Magnetic Fields. Depending on your taste, the track’s sleepy spell is either heightened or ruined by the meandering but self-conscious lyrics: “Hostile Indians, we named a summer camp for you. I’ve got nothing to say. I’ve got nothing to say.”
After this left-field marvel, the band dives back into rock & roll. “Electricityscape” opens with discord — a novelty for the album — and we have to suffer a whole 90 seconds before being treated to the familiar sweetness of a big Strokes chorus. The next two tracks, “Killing Lies” and “Fear of Sleep,” also take time before paying off enormously. Built around crisply pounded guitars (a la the Walkmen, fellow wunderkinds of the new school New York rock scene), both tracks agitatedly swell into high-flying climaxes. The sing-along freakout at the end of “Sleep” is certainly the high point of the Strokes’ young career.
The last quarter of “First Impressions of Earth” is its weakest, if only because it storms through polished rock without the ecstatic catchiness. Yet there is a nice little Queen-inspired romp at the end of the album, “Red Light,” complete with the singing along to high-pitched electric guitars.
And like Queen’s glam (or the Ramones’ shagginess, or Led Zeppelin’s black magic), the Strokes have a character that’s impossible to disregard when listening to their albums. The band’s image is downright lean — seen in iconic thin black ties, heard in tightly strummed electric guitars. But it’s inane to dismiss “First Impressions of Earth” because this character comes across as too cool for school, just as it’s senseless to dislike the music simply because it’s so massively likeable.
There’s just too much rock & roll splendor within the album’s fourteen tracks to find it objectionable. If you can manage to move on from the atrocity of that first single, and put aside whatever unfortunate image problems you may find with the Strokes (here’s looking at you, gunslinger.), you’re in for a sparkling treat.