Finicky Ears

First Impressions: Julian Casablancas – Phrazes for the Young

Posted in Album Reviews, First Impressions by finickyears on November 5, 2009


You only get one chance to make a first impression. Every week, Finicky Ears will review an album as we listen to it for the first time, capturing the initial impact a record makes without the luxuries of repeat listens and second thoughts (and you thought this was just a clever pun based on the last Strokes album title!). This week, we listen to Julian Casablancas’ first solo recording without The Strokes.

The opening song, “Out of the Blue,” sounds, well, kind of like The Strokes. In tempo, at least. The guitar sound is pushed a little farther in the back of the mix, but it has a very typical pop melody that I would expect from Casablancas. Then, about 2 minutes in, there is a pretty rad breakdown and the chorus kicks back in its pop glory. I think I like this! But I can’t understand a single thing he is saying. Heard something about a black leather jacket. For full disclosure, I have to say I did not care for First Impressions of Earth at all. I’m more of a Room on Fire kind of guy, but this doesn’t really sound like either of them.

Track 2 is starting now. Also up-tempo, almost danceable.  As the chorus kicks, I realize it is definitely danceable. Jesus, Julian Casablancas can write a hook. He is taking more risks with his voice. The first Strokes record sounded so easy for him to sing, but especially at the end of the second verse here, he is pushing some high notes. I just looked at my iTunes playlist and realized that pretty much all the songs on this album push five minutes in length. Quick research has just taught me how many Strokes songs on their three albums total five minutes: zero.

Now the single is starting: “11th Dimension.” I have heard this track a couple of times already, and I would totally be dancing if I were not typing feverishly. This is not going to be a lyric lovers album since it’s pretty hard to follow the words. I’m going to guess this song is about time travel – or space travel. I have nothing to base that on besides the title, by the way. I’m taking a dance break.

OK, song 4 seems to be a ballad: “4 Chords of the Apocalypse.” That’s funny. Good one, Julian. I believe in the R&B world, this would be called a “slow jam.” But there is still a very rich sound to it. Yeah, wow. When everything kicks in, it’s like a slow jam on steroids. Still, this is not a song to be taken seriously. Even though Casablancas seems to be singing his guts out, the arrangement has just too much going on for any emotional impact. It sounds good, though, and the composition is ultimately strong. Like I said, Casablancas can write a hook. Really big vocal on the finish here, too.

Track 5: “Ludlow St.” It’s the first song opening on the album that greatly changes the mood. But that only lasts for the intro. The song changes into an “ooh-blah-dee”-ish sing-songy jam. This is even harder to take seriously than the last song. I think we are pushing into the territory of over-production. The melody could be an old country song. Oh wait. I think that is a banjo solo! Maybe a mandolin. Yeah, this is a little silly. You had me, Julian! I thought we were dancing and shit! I’m going to zone out from this song for a second and note how disappointed I am he is playing his L.A. residency at The Downtown Palace Theater.  Not that it doesn’t sound like a cool show, but good tickets are like 50 bucks. I thought solo albums are when you play at the small venues and stripped-down versions of your beloved classics.

Track 6 speeds things up again, the first song to not be instantly catchy. It’s called “River of Brakelights.” Another track that would be at home on a Strokes record. After the initial verse, the song does get catchy. Thank God. It’s like he can’t help writing memorable melodies. There are worse afflictions to have for a songwriter. But the overall feeling throughout this number is disorder. Think post-punk. Think Joy Division. It’s still probably the best song on the album. One of the major strengths of this Phrazes is how the songs build towards something. Whether it is a climax or just a faraway ending point, we are not getting typical verse-chorus-verse structures at all.

Track 7 slows things down again, a less cheesier slow song than song 4: “Glass.” Production quality sounds like Dave Sitek (just checked – he didn’t work on it. Mike Mogis did, though.). This would be a good headphones record. I’m noticing lots going on way over on the left speaker that I am not hearing in my nearer, right speaker. My fingers are starting to hurt. I guess this is how those court reporters feel. Wow, this track just had a pretty rad guitar solo. First one of those on the album so far. Not a cohesive effort, though. The sound maintains some consistency, but it started off as a dance record and seems to get schizophrenic from song to song after “11th Dimension.”

Last song: “Tourist.” You can’t call this record boring. Though this song has a slower pace, the rhythm of the guitars creates a sense of urgency and movement. Every song manages to jam a wealth of sounds in while weaving in and out of the vocal tracks. There is enough here to keep the listener occupied through five or six listens, easy. And I could see this track being one of the growers on the album. We get another guitar solo. One of the fascinating things about this record is how studio-created it seems, where The Strokes always felt like a band. Are those trumpets? I do miss the organic sounds of The Strokes a little. But this is the future, I guess. Nice, big finish.

Wow, that was intense.

Would I listen to this record again? I already am. Did it work as a cohesive unit? Not so much. It felt more like an overview of all the sounds Casablancas has been experimenting with while he waits for the next Strokes record. Did I enjoy it? Yes, but I wanted more. What thrilled me most about this record was that it was so much better than First Impressions of Earth. The songwriting was strong and affirmed that Julian Casablancas is a songwriter worth paying attention to. Hopefully, he has another masterpiece inside of him.

First Impressions Grade: B
Possible Grade Upon Further Listens: A- to B-

Buy the new album before it is released as a really expensive vinyl boxed set.


One Response

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  1. SMS420 said, on November 6, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Great Blog! Keep ’em coming.

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