Monday, January 16, 2006

The Strokes re-invent their wheel, sort of

Halfway through the first listen of the first track, you'll be hooked. I was.

The stuttering rhythm guitar and walloping drums that start the song don't promise anything particularly earthshaking, but then come the opening guitar chords, clean and direct, with just the right amount of swagger. In about twelve seconds, singer Julian Casablancas starts crooning and declaiming in an arch yet affecting style, punctuating the verses with 'oh, oh's' like a goofily-happy Lou Reed. Then the guitar gets loud and boisterous, and the joyous infectiousness of the song has utterly seeped in. It's three minutes and nine seconds of pop perfection.

The song is "You Only Live Once," the opening track on First Impressions of Earth, the third CD by New York post-punk darlings, The Strokes. The tune's marriage of indie-rock idiosyncracy and arena-ready boldness couldn't be more perfect, and the instant the track finishes, you'll want to listen to it again. It's a damn shame that the weather sucks in my neck of the woods, because this song'd sound absolutely sublime cranked in the car on a sunny day. Seldom has a band made lyrical ennui ("I can't see the sunshine") so bracing and addictively catchy.

The rest of the CD's pretty damn good, too. No, wait, it's really damn good, even great in places, as the band's concise, tightly-wound style gets a bit of a goose by some fuller production and some good old-fashioned wing-spreading. Casablancas no longer sounds like he's singing through a broken megaphone, and his throaty croon blossoms in the slightly more lush surroundings. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. prove they're capable of more than just the sparse hooks that tinctured the band's first two albums, throwing out some dizzying Arabic fretwork on "Vision of Division." And the band branches out stylistically, indulging in percolating Magnetic Fields-style balladry ("Ask Me Anything"), a disco backbeat ("On the Other Side"), and a Pogues-worthy drunken sea-shanty-cum-punk-pounder ("15 Minutes").

All this experimenting goes down so nicely because the band still keeps the songs brief and punchy, and they still know their way around a melody. "Razorblade" cribs the melodic hook from Barry Manilow's "Mandy" (!) to crafty effect, and Nikolai Frature's strutting bass renders the high-velocity "Juicebox" as hooky as it is cathartically shredding.

Great as so much of First Impressions is, though, it'll take an earthquake-sized force of nature to dislodge "You Only Live Once" from my head. I can hardly wait 'til the sun comes out again.

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