The Strokes' debut album, 2001's Is This It, sold over a million copies and received rave reviews, making the NYC group a rare modern-day concoction: a critically acclaimed rock & roll band that sells records. But this being the age of instant gratification, the backlash couldn't come too soon. Their follow-up, 2003's Room on Fire, wasn't as well-received and sold about half as many copies. Live sets that devolved into drunken shambles didn't do much for the band's reputation among the fickle public, either.
Cult bands get away with erratic behavior because dysfunctional love is a prerequisite for cult followers, beautiful losers one and all. But for those bands circling the mainstream? Well, there's a reason why so much live performance is prerecorded these days: Mass audiences expect perfection, or at least a decent facsimile of the album they bought. If they're delivered anything less, it's simply on to the next hopefully more reliable musical commodity.
Thus, with the pressures of "comeback" undoubtedly weighing heavily on their intentions, The Strokes deliver their third album. With veteran pop producer David Kahne (known not only for his work with the likes of the Bangles and Sugar Ray, but also for being the label guy who rejected Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) at the helm, First Impressions of Earth comes raging out of the box with its claws fiercely bared.
Much of The Strokes' aesthetic to this point has included staccato jabs of punk power sweetened with artsy new-wave flourishes, its rage turned inward until the music percolates and implodes. There are many such moments here as well ("Electricityscape," "Evening Sun"), but "You Only Live Once," the album's opening cut, will have none of it. Here, the band unleashes their collective ferocity at full throttle, holding nothing back. Singer Julian Casablancas snarls like a petulant rock star, "Some people think they're always right," and it's in that flashing moment that The Strokes sound ready to vie for the title of Best Hard Rock Band.
But, at heart, this is a band of artistes. They may be capable of believably posing like rockers, but their interests rest in textures more than power chords and riffs. We get plenty of artistic reaching on Impressions, whether it's the Anglo-goth glow of "Fear of Sleep" or their channeling of the Magnetic Fields in the moody turbulence of "Ask Me Anything." Sometimes, though, they're not completely successful: The lethargic thud of "15 Minutes" includes what may be Casablancas' (or, possibly, anyone's) worst lyric to date: "All my pets, they were there and they smiled/Take a seat it looks fine."
The Strokes are no exception to the axiom that declares everything must revert to the mean; this very long, 14-song, 57-minute collection eventually grinds against itself. Sure, "Juicebox," the album's first single, crackles with an extra snap and pop and the twin guitars of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. are unleashed to spit forth quick, exciting trills. In fact, in many instances the opening of "Razorblade," the quick asides of "Heart in a Cage" it's their album. But as a whole, First Impressions is less a comeback-ready statement of intent than it is simply a great collection of isolated moments.
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