The Hitchhiker’s Guide to New Releases
Their sophomore effort, Room on Fire , continued to define cool as a slim scruffy rocker slouched at a bar with a cigarette dangling from his lips. First Impressions of Earth , The Strokes’ third album, is, at first glance, different. The record contains 14 songs and runs just over 50 minutes, almost 20 minutes longer than Is This It . The length is an indication of the musical goal. The image of our rocker sitting at the bar still holds, but this time he is flesh and blood.
Impressions takes chances with its arrangements, merging flashy drums with intricate guitar-work to fabricate an album that’s at once catchy and dynamic. Sudden stops and abrupt tonal shifts are accompanied by explosive instrumental sections. Julian Casablancas’ vocals are clear, no longer buried or affected, revealing remarkable range and character. The midpoint of the record comes as a shock; drums and guitar are left out completely and the electric bass is replaced with an upright, overlaid by Casablancas’ inversely ironic mantra, “I have nothing to say.” While the band’s strengths still lie in the proven formula of earlier records, the attempt to stretch its boundaries gives the record an emotive quality unexpected from the champions of hip.
But further comparisons between the album and beer bottle poster-children would be misleading. Book of Sand adheres not to one woozy narrative, but to several resolutely sober ones as well; it’s an album about war and peace, edges and formlessness, history and imagination, dream-states and realities. Cerebral musings are punctuated by masculine interludes, spikes of dutifully structured thrash-metal intended to conjure the demons of crumbled empires: pride, power and war.
The album is mostly instrumental—a rock opera, so to speak, without the words—lightly glazed with vocals, including a warbly cameo by Devendra Banhart. For the most part, however, it’s divided between avant-garde mutations of classical repertoire and bombastic Metallica-inspired rifts, Flamenco rhythms and bird sounds, poised performance and found junk. It’s as though the composers went rifling through a closet of musical textures, pulling out the most intangible garments and trying them on for size. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but moments of the album are so brilliant that it’s worth investing in the intergalactic galoshes needed to find them.
“A Kiss Before I Go,” Jacksonville City Nights; “Let It Ride,” Cold Roses, disc two; “Dance All Night,” Cold Roses, disc two; “Night Birds,” 29; “If I Am a Stranger,” Cold Roses, disc two; “The Hardest Part,” Jacksonville City Nights; “How Do You Keep Love Alive,” Cold Roses, disc one; “29,” 29; “Rosebud,” Cold Roses, disc two; “Silver Bullets,” Jacksonville City Nights; “Magnolia Mountain,” Cold Roses, disc one; “Dear John,” Jacksonville City Nights; “Mockingbirdsing,” Cold Roses, disc one; “Games,” Jacksonville City Nights; “Now That You’re Gone,” Cold Roses, disc one; “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part,” 29; “When Will You Come Back Home?” Cold Roses, disc one; “Hard Way to Fall,” Jacksonville City Nights; “Friends,” Cold Roses, disc two