Monday, November 30, 2009

Phrazes For the Young - Julian Casablancas

Phrazes For the Young

Julian Casablancas
RCA Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

Even before several Strokes-oriented side-projects littered the marketplace these last few years, it was difficult to predict a lucrative launch-date for a Julian Casablancas solo album. It was First Impressions of Earth, the record that earned mixed reviews in 2006 but has since become the public pissing-ground for every accolade the Strokes ever received, that spawned this ever-present pessimism for the NY quintet. Whether the backlash was warranted or not, over or still widespread, it’s a shame that Julian and the boys took the whipping their hype machine behind them deserved. Since the band’s falling-out, nobody has kept a lower profile than Casablancas who, as serendipitous timing would have it, has finally stepped forth with new music just as every music magazine is remembering Strokes’ albums for their Best-of-00s lists. A truce, then?

Of course, for a songwriter who was coerced into repeating his debut’s strategy for Room On Fire (which some fans found too similar), then convinced to branch out in new directions (which everyone argued was too different), Casablancas can’t be blamed for approaching the press side of Phrazes For the Young with a nervous apprehension. In one interview, he’ll talk at length about Phrazes… being inspired by his love of symphonies and how he was tempted to go further outside the box, while another interview will find him clamping down, insisting he only recorded a solo album to kill time before a Strokes reunion. Such a shame, when Phrazes For the Young is certainly deserving of Casablancas’ gushing; an album that experiments well beyond the uncertain steps of First Impressions of Earth and finds his swagger no less effective in this Bladerunner-esque, retroactive future.

Although Casablancas seems to be sitting at the command of his stereophonic spaceship in Phrazes…' cover-art, there’s no shortage of history in those wooden floorboards. ‘Out of the Blue’ sports the most Strokes-friendly guitar-work here while ‘11th Dimension’ fits some more tense, excitedly rhythmic guitar into its bridge. Besides those faint hallmarks and Casablancas’ familiar voice, however, these eight tracks have an altogether heightened agenda; combining intricately woven synths, drum machines and electronic beats with more traditional instruments, Phrazes For the Young seeks to attain the same rock’n’roll dynamics without tripping over itself. With just about every song clocking in at over the five-minute mark, that ambition often goes wanting, especially when ‘Tourist’ never deviates from its somber marching and ‘Ludlow St.’ rambles on like a bored, late-period Van Morrison ballad. The fact of the matter is that these compositions are too busy and lengthy to not go anywhere special, and occasionally it seems as though Casablancas prioritized small details over song foundations.

Still, once you adjust to the album’s pacing, this collection vindicates itself as a spacey and pop-centric odyssey. ‘River of Brakelights’ has all the urgency and thrills of vintage Strokes, coated with an electro-pop sheen, while ‘Glass’ features Casablancas’ stand-out dramatics, all beat-heavy with layered synths. As strange as this may sound, it’s rare to hear a spaced-out rock symphony maintain such testosterone, and while Phrazes For the Young may take a few listens to reveal its bounties, it’s rewarding to hear Casablancas reignite his creative whims without sacrificing the leather jacket.

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