Phrazes For The Young

Strokes frontman ditches leather jacket, reinvents self as DIY Gary Numan

Surveying the cratered landscape of contemporary American rock music in 2008, writer Jeff Gordinier put forward a controversial thesis: wouldn’t it have been better if, after their zeitgeist-humping first album, The Strokes had simply split up? “The way I see it, ceaseless productivity equals diminished returns,” he writes. “Since we’re being frank, do you really need the last two Strokes albums?”

Maybe he was onto something. On 2003’s Room On Fire and 2006’s First Impressions Of Earth, Strokes frontman Casablancas sounded like an artist on permanent vacation from his own band. Singing in that bleary half-mumble, he seemed semi-connected at best to the three-chord hipster din rattling around him. Ever since, rumours of a Strokes break-up have been swirling about and though the group insist they’re to reconvene in the new year, possibly for a collaboration with The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, it’s hard not to suspect that Casablancas’ first solo album is as much about endings as new beginnings.

Because he suddenly sounds interested in music again. Indeed, it’s no stretch to claim Phrazes For The Young is the best thing he’s done since The Strokes’ Is This It. Layered in tinny, Casio synths, the record is quick to rise above his DIY aesthetic and take flight: there are charmingly disheveled melodies, choruses to linger over and, in the middle of it all, a suddenly re-engaged Casablancas, crooning dissolutely.

Still, Strokes devotees should be warned: this is anything but the record the band ought to have put out after Is This It. Granted, it avoids the meandering, naval-gazing torpidity of their follow-up LP, but it’s also entirely lacking in leather jacketed cool. Rather, Phrazes... is cheerfully dorky, stylistically all over the place, a project that – and this is to its credit – feels as if it was stitched together in spare moments by a slightly inebriated crew of musicians.

Its finest moments take advantage of the fact that, though he certainly looks the part of rakish indie dilettante, Casablancas isn’t actually the world’s most fantastic vocalist. On ‘Out Of The Blue’ he mumbles something heartfelt over wobbly-legged keyboards and then, as if to prove that, actually, he is taking all of this seriously, socks you with a gleaming chorus. Shaking off the ennui, it’s a reminder that, when he’s interested, he’s actually a decent tunesmith.

Better yet is single ‘11th Dimension’, three-and-a-half minutes of unadulterated froth that kicks off in a swirl of stabbing synth notes and segues into vintage electropop (who’s been slipping Casabalancas decent mix-tapes?)

Phrazes... is by no stretch perfect – indeed a strong tolerance for Casablanacas’ lizard-eyed, straight-out-of-bed singing style is probably mandatory from the outset. On the other hand, it does suggest that, when sufficiently motivated – or, perhaps, unencumbered by expectation – he has a sweet sensibility and an ear for ditzy hooks. Someone tell The Strokes to take another two years off. We want to hear what solo artist Casablancas gets up to next.

 

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