Is This It? spoiled us silly. Unlike a stellar debut that leaves a band's future as a hypothetical line of evolution, many of us didn't care how the Strokes would develop. Typically, we want more, not more of the same. But not after Is This It? It was good enough. It was it.
If the Strokes had J.D. Salingered themselves out of existence, we'd be content that Is This It? was the pinnacle of the band's musical potential. We didn't expect the Strokes to evolve. Well, maybe just a little, but certainly not as much as they have on their third album, First Impressions of Earth. It seems our beloved New York hipsters have boldly sashayed into a bigger, more ambitious sound (scary, huh?).
When I saw the band tour for its sophomore release, Room on Fire, I was taken aback by the power of the songs. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. and vocalist Julian Casablancas soaked up all the fans' admiration from the front of the stage while drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture pounded away. The intensity wouldn't have felt right on record, but it was perfect for a strobe-light-enhanced live setting. This added oomph seems to be what new producer David Kahne (Sugar Ray, President of the United States of America) has pinpointed on First Impressions. He beefed up the band's sound, furthering the direction the band took with such songs as Room on Fire's "Reptilia." With the mix focused on the depth, creativity and preciseness of Fraiture and Moretti's rhythm section, it's easy to overlook Casablancas's soulful crooning or Hammond's and Valensi's increasingly proficient guitar skill (the two are miles past their Is This It? selves). Although former producer Gordon Raphael's touch is certainly missed (it's much of the reason we fell in love with the boys five years ago), songs such as "Heart in a Cage," with its chromatic-scale guitar runs, and "Electricityscape," with its oddly gothic opening, include the kind of arena sound that would have been so foreign on previous releases.
Among the record's best, "You Only Live Once" works as an appropriate opener, setting the precedent for Casablancas's now undistorted vocals but otherwise sticking to the standard Strokes formula. And sitting near the familiarly Cars-ish "Red Light" and "Razorblade" are bigger sonic stretches such as "Ize of the World." On it, Casablancas skillfully weaves in lines of lyrical triplets and Moretti manhandles his inner drum machine as a barrage of guitar builds to a climactic release before a chilling, abrupt ending.
The record's first single, "Juicebox," is where most fans will begin to divide, but at least this song has bite, even if it does sound a bit like Jet. Elsewhere, such tracks as "15 Minutes" and "Fear of Sleep" play like quota fillers, and "On the Other Side," though it begins with a powerfully energizing bass line, features a chorus chord progression that sounds as if were outsourced to an elementary school music class learning the recorder. "Ask Me Anything," a track with Casablancas singing over a gentle Mellotron, would be one of the album's shining moments were it not for the conspicuous and somewhat unnerving similarities to the Magnetic Fields' "I Don't Want to Get Over You." It exemplifies the album's occasional feeling of laziness.
As the record closes in on fifty-two minutes, you can't help but think about how much filler could have been eliminated ("Evening Sun" and "Killing Lies" would be first to go) had the band kept the length closer to that of its past releases (lopping off twenty minutes of crap can work miracles). Still, from the band we never expected to evolve, there is enough sweeping ambition to have knocked us on our heels - if only the members had learned the art of discretion.
The Strokes Web site (includes "Juicebox" video)RCA Web site