With new album, Strokes make a fine 'First Impression'

by Meredith Fraser | 1/4/06 6:00am

It's been a while since we last heard from the Strokes. Sure, drummer Fabrizio Moretti and his girlfriend Drew Barrymore have been tabloid regulars, but otherwise those stylish New York boys have been locked in their studio. But their third album, "First Impressions of Earth," was just released yesterday, ending the countdown to the Strokes' anticipated return.

After erupting onto the rock music scene in 2001 with their highly-lauded album "Is This It," the Strokes unexpectedly resurrected garage rock at a time when Britney and her boy band cohorts ruled the music charts. The declared progeny of The Velvet Underground and The Ramones were hailed by some critics as the saviors of rock and roll. Following the success of that first album and massive support in the U.K., the Strokes opened the floodgates for a sea of fashion-conscious, talented bands, such as the White Stripes, the Hives and the Libertines.

Praised by mainstream media and independents alike, "Is This It" established the Strokes' unique musical style. Arguably, every song on that first album holds its own as a catchy single, and a good number of them rank toward the top of my favorite-songs-ever list.

But the magnitude of "Is This It" has come back to haunt the Strokes, whose following effort pales in comparison to that brilliant first endeavor. "Room on Fire" (2003) wasn't as impressive as its predecesor. A few great songs saved it from the critical slaughterhouse, but it was a disappointment to fans nonetheless. Listening to "Room on Fire" is comparable to drinking sparkling apple cider after having tasted champagne -- still good, but inadequate because you know you could've been handed something better.

Rumors of record company impatience led possible explanations of why the Strokes' sophomore effort slumped. Naysayers gained ground by pointing a finger at the band members' focus on sense of fashion, as the phrase "style over substance" cropped up in myriad reviews and articles.

Such a detailed background to the release of "First Impressions of Earth," is necessary to understand why the album carries both anticipation and apprehension for many fans. It has been over two years since the release of "Room on Fire" and fans have waited for "Impressions" with bated breath.

After listening to this new album ad nauseam, here's my simple summary: if I were to rank the three full-length albums, "Impressions" would fall somewhere behind "Is This It" but in front of "Room on Fire." The album maintains that specific Strokes' style, but there is some undeniable stretching going on in their New York studio. Their narrow niche in the world of rock is a special one, but it leaves the Strokes little room to breathe. Consequently, in trying to broaden their sound while simultaneously maintaining their unique brand, they sometimes succeed, and sometimes ... not so much.

"First Impressions of Earth" gets off to a strong start, as the Strokes' reliable, repetitive beats carry "You Only Live Once" and "Heart in a Cage" through familiar but catchy territory. "Juicebox" is a bombastic jolt of a song -- by far the loudest offering on this album. Continuing through the tracks, "Razorblade" withstands the fact that it's heavily borrowed from Barry Manilow's "Mandy" and ends up being quite enjoyable. "On the Other Side" and "Vision of Division" also held my attention, even if the latter gets slightly repetitive towards the end.

Then I was reminded of "Room on Fire." When Casablancas begins to croon the chorus to "Ask Me Anything," I literally said "Oh God" -- just as "Room" slips midway through the track list, so slides "Impressions." Don't get me wrong: "Ask Me Anything" is not a bad song, but the very repetitive chorus of "I have nothing to say" made me want to rip my headphones off and hurl them out the window. What's perplexing is that the song is actually good, but merely mediocre for a song by the Strokes. Needless to say, after "Ask Me Anything," my hopeful excitement dwindled significantly.

Even if the second half of "Impressions" loses a little steam, there are a few stand-outs here -- most notably, "Fear of Sleep," "Ize of the World," and "Red Light." While Casablancas' lyrics are always calculated in their laziness, they are admittedly far better than average on most of this album. His voice is sometimes more restrained and more rehearsed -- it's obvious that this time around, dear Julian didn't stumble into the studio, stab out his ubiquitous cigarette and drone about mindlessly.

The other songs are by no means bad, but they lack the originality and crispness that it takes to stand apart. Many songs on "Impressions" may mush together, but it's mush worth giving a try.

Even if "Impressions" does not sit next to "Is This It" in the musical pantheon, it is still an accomplished album. That's what's important to know about the Strokes: even when they falter, they land on a higher plane than most of their contemporaries.

I have come to accept the Strokes for what they are -- a band I trust will deliver a certain sound from their isolated niche in the rock world. When they arrived, they were proclaimed the saviors of rock. Just remind yourself that saviors aren't saints, and such a proclamation may prove itself true.