Thursday, November 12, 2009

Julian Casablancas: Phrazes For The Young

With Phrazes For The Young, Julian Casablancas not only joins the cadre of Strokes who have released solo records, but also brings the band within one member of having all released solo albums, which is quite a feat unto itself. The band that was hailed as the great white hope of rock and roll in the fall of 2001 is clearly searching for itself, both as individuals and as a collective, and the great outpouring of solo work is no doubt a considerable part of the puzzle. With a studio album in an undecided state, three years since their last record, and (supposedly) a member in rehab, it really gets you wondering how much longer there will be an entity known as "The Strokes". Luckily for Julian Casablancas, that may prove to be irrelevant.

Let's start at the beginning: Much like the other Strokes' solo records, there are fingerprints of the band all over Phrazes For The Young. In this case, however, they're even more notable. Primarily due to Casablancas' distinctive voice, but also relating to composition, this record sounds unquestionably more like a Strokes record than any of the other band members' solo output. Casablancas has cited Young as his opportunity to try things he couldn't try in The Strokes, be a control freak and not worry about it, and try and popularize underground music. The rub is that in many ways he was already doing those things in The Strokes, so the distance from a Strokes record to this one is not as far as one might expect.

That being said, it would be a mistake to categorize this as more of the same. Casablancas unquestionably takes some sonic and compositional risks on the record, and for the most part it works. The record's lead-off single, "11th Dimension", is unquestionably (and logically) its most accessible moment. It's joined by "Out Of The Blue" and "Left & Right Of The Dark" as one of the three most straight-ahead rock songs on the record. The rest of the track list is far more riddled with challenging composition: "4 Chords Of The Apocalypse" is driven by something of a gospel dirge. "Ludlow St." is an oddly miserable take on country music. "River Of Brakelights" is rock through a Timbaland filter. The record's two closing tracks "Glass" and "Tourist" find Casablancas artfully fleshing out his skill at balladry. All that in only eight tracks - indeed.

So, if you're looking for the short answer: it's a great record. But there's far more there under the surface, and more than a fair bit of imbalance. After giving the record repeated listens, it remains undeniably clear that Casablancas may have been trying to do too much. It's more than a little ironic that in grabbing full control of the creative process, Casablancas has in many ways made his most disjointed record to date. There have been hints of this in the past with tracks like "Under Control" and "Ask Me Anything", but this is the first time that Casablancas' penchant for stylistic non sequiturs has been completely exposed.

There isn't a weak moment amongst the eight tracks here, but there is a distance between them. In many ways the record feels like it was made of two EP's: one an exercise in experimental low tempo songwriting, and the other a flat out rock and roll record. One could (and many will) that these tracks come together, and that the distance between them is in fact what gives them balance. But the fact of the matter is that they are simply too far apart to hold together as an album. Will this matter to Casablancas' fans? Not in the least. But when considering the record and whether it lives on as a classic, the lack of unity will be counted against it.

Without a doubt, those trying to escape the shadow of a great band are hounded by the spectre of their bandmates. Most notably, The Beatles worked their entire solo careers to escape their own greatness, and never succeeded. However, most of this lack of success was not a result of their own lack of talent: it was a result of self indulgence. Without the counterweight of the other members, each was free to wallow away in a world of musical masturbation. Unquestionably, this yielded some fantastic records, but few would argue that there's any solo material on par with the band's original output.

Similarly, The Strokes have spent the last three years battling to find themselves in the world of solo recording: Albert Hammond with sunny pop, Fabrizio Moretti with subdued latin melodies, Nikolai Fraiture with a straight ahead rock record, and now Julian Casablancas with a synth laden rock and roll experiment. But the fact of the matter is that these four (and a still silent fifth) are part of a greater whole. They each have the ability to deliver on their own, and probably do so better than most. But still, none of them have managed to capture the magic that they do as a unit. In other words, you'd better believe that next Strokes record is going to matter. In the meantime, we'll be listening to Phrazes For The Young, and you'd better believe we'll be enjoying the hell out of it.

Julian Casablancas 2009 North American Tour Dates
Nov 13 Downtown Palace Theatre Los Angeles, California
Nov 17 The Regency Ballroom San Francisco, California
Nov 20 Downtown Palace Theatre Los Angeles, California
Nov 22 Showbox at the Market Seattle, Washington
Nov 23 Commodore Ballroom Vancouver, British Columbia
Nov 27 Downtown Palace Theatre Los Angeles, California

mp3: Julian Casablancas - 11th Dimension


Hanan said...


I love how you ended the post. Strokes IV will matter indeed

it kind of does sound like two EPs most of the time but it doesn't matter because Jules was just experimenting. and it's ear candy at its best. and I love Julian.

for the record, Under Control and Ask Me Anything are great fucking songs.