Stroke of genius

The Strokes may be dormant, but their singer is alive and kicking.

Bibek Bhattacharya | Print Edition: December 13, 2009

When The Strokes first burst upon the scene eight years ago, they were hailed as the saviours of rock ‘n’ roll. The hyperbole surrounding this bunch of unknowns surprised many, but rock did need saving in 2001. By then, the energy and relevance of rock ‘n’ roll had been largely bottled into the fake angst of American mainstream rock, a grotesque parody of ’90s Alt Rock, with bands like Nickelback and Limp Bizkit ruling the roost. Out in the UK, Britpop had long run its course and the lily-livered likes of Coldplay had usurped the Top of the Pops from Oasis and Blur. Time was ripe for something new.

The New York-based band’s debut album Is This It? was a taut, snappy rush of laser-guided guitar pop sans any fat and chock-a-bloc full of great melodies. The stripped down, focussed sound of the band effectively laid down the blueprint of how a rock band should look and sound in the new millennium. They injected fun back into rock. Since 2006, they have been on a hiatus, while countless bands have sprung up all around the globe that sound just like The Strokes.

In these intervening years members of the band have released pleasant solo records, but what people were really eager to hear was new music from the band’s singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas. Finally released, his debut solo album Phrazes for the Young (pictured above) is a triumph. It starts out on familiar Strokes territory with the chugging, chiming guitars of Out of The Blue bursting from the speakers. But by the time the glorious chorus comes on, it isn’t guitars that come to the fore, but synthesizers! But the song’s so good, you can hardly imagine it existing in any other sonic context. The other tune on this short album that most resembles The Strokes is the raging River of Brakelights.

But the other six songs take one musical left turn after another, all the while retaining their quality pop hooks. So while Glass can only be described as a combination of Western Classical motifs and shiny, glacial electropop, 11th Dimension wanders through a looking glass world of cheesy ’80s synth pop, treated percussions and a decidedly ’50s guitar. These wildly disparate elements should never mix, but here they do so, miraculously. In a similar vein, the deep soul of 4 Chords of the Apocalypse suddenly morphs into a swirling mass of sound in the chorus, which then leads to a delightfully sweeping guitar solo.

Casablancas has often been accused of singing in a sullen whine. On Phrazes he buries his vocals deep in the mix ala Mick Jagger on The Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and just as Jagger did on that album, Casablancas proceeds to unveil his rich range—from the fantastic soul croon on Apocalypse to a warped, wry sing song on the country ditty Ludlow Street, which starts with an ominous drone like the There Will be Blood soundtrack before morphing into a waltz-tune lament for the soul of New York city.

If this album is any indication of where Casablancas’ head is at, then next year’s much awaited new Strokes album will either be a masterpiece or will sink like a stone.

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