Casablancas is a gem of a songwriter.
Andrzej Lukowski 2009-10-16
While the last few years have yielded a politely received drizzle of side projects from various members of The Strokes, it can’t be stressed enough that expectations for Julian Casablancas’s Phrazes for the Young are exponentially higher. He’s not only the voice and author of all the New York band’s songs (bar four co-writes); he’s the very slow author of their songs, and a solo record’s mere existence surely puts a fourth band album back by at least a year. In other words: this had better be good.
It’s been widely reported as an electro-pop departure, which is somewhat misleading. The crisply ringing guitars and compact rhythms of the day job are reduced, but the new-wave-y, Cars-style synths won‘t surprise anybody familiar with Room on Fire, while eight songs in 40 minutes is by some measure the most ponderous record of Casablancas’s career. In fact the likes of 4 Chords of the Apocalypse and Ludlow Street betray a country influence as much as anything, slow, sure-plucked backdrops to some particularly laconic vocals. Heck, the rinky-dink rhythm and nihilistic overtones of opener Out of the Blue could be lifted from a Johnny Cash song.
With a casually timeless “woah ooo ooh” chorus, Out of the Blue kicks off a run of three tunes that should slake those looking for a bit of Strokes immediacy; Left & Right in the Dark undergoes a thrilling leap from hipster torpor to his most engaged turn since Juicebox, with its FM-friendly exhortation to “wake up, wake up”; and single 11th Dimension’s sprightly two-note synth line does sound like an electro-pop departure, a fist-pumping, naive little brother to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Zero.
The dark fizz of River of Brake Lights aside, the remainder of the album is much less immediate: rich, contemplative beds of synth and strum over which Casablancas rumbles, ponder and murmurs, vocals and music in unhurried synthesis. You feel like you could chew his every vowel. It’d probably be a considered a bit meandering for a Strokes album, but that’s not what Phrazes for the Young is. It’s neither a band record, nor a genre record, but a Julian Casablancas record, and that’s just dandy, because Julian Casablancas is a gem of a songwriter.