Rock writer par excellence and Rocksposure contributor Bryan Wawzenek has or had a theory that may or may not have been published in regards to a band or album that neither of us can remember, except that it probably referenced what a tool Roger Daltrey is.
To wit: Your favorite band is only as good as the lead guitarist. If you wanna be all mathematical about it, the Edge is greater than Bono, Keith is greater than Mick, Page is greater than Plant, and Pete is greater than that tool Roger Daltrey. The pretty boy stroking the mic stand and moaning come-ons to groupies in the front row might be the one on the cover of the Rolling Stone, but in the wee small hours, with the record due next week, he's also probably got a bottle of Jack in one hand and a fake boob in the other while the guitarist is chain-smoking at the sound board, layering in another solo and tweaking the beat so that the singer's slapdash poetry about Jack and boobs sounds a little less stupid. When your friends are forcing their latest MySpace Music discovery on you, you ask, "What do they sound like?" "They" sound like the guitarist, and if the lead singer can mumble like Kurt or wail like Freddie, well that's just gravy.
The release of Julian Casablancas' "Phrazes for the Young" provides a better-than-perfect case study for Bryan's theory: since 2006's wildly, vastly, monumentally, shamefully, ridiculously underrated "First Impressions of Earth," four out of five Strokes have released solo or side project albums (presumably Nick Valensi is busy with his three-year-old twins, and if I've learned anything from not watching "John and Kate Plus 8" all these years, I'm guessing Valensi will never play music again for anyone, ever). So, without straying too far from the task at hand, who do the Strokes really sound like? And what have we learned about the once and future kings of America's turn of the century rock revival as album four slips into 2K10?
Well, for starters, the Strokes' frantic rhythm section is really tired: drummer Fab Moretti's Little Joy makes sleepy island rock that I can't believe Corona hasn't snapped up for those ads where people sit in beach chairs and stare at the ocean; bassist Nikolai Fraiture's brilliantly-named Nickle Eye sounds like drab J Mascis minus the thunderous guitar fuzz, plus a suspicious extra up-twist on the old bass dial. By design, neither of these albums have anything to do with the Strokes' reckless velocity, which is the oldest trick in the side-gig book: downplay your celebrity and the music that made you a celebrity so that people take this side gig that of course isn't a side gig but something you're really serious about seriously -- it's not about the drummer from the Strokes, it's about the MUSIC, man. If you'll excuse an inappropriate metaphor, there's no "It Don't Come Easy" on these albums, no "Photograph," no "My Sweet Lord" or "I Got My Mind Set On You," nothing that's going to make you re-evaluate Fab or Nikolai's role in the Strokes' greatness. The music is too unassuming and bland for that. Rest up, boys -- "Last Night" is faster than you remember.
Julian was never going to play wallflower sideman, which is why I like his album better than Little Joy or Nickle Eye even though it's probably worse than either -- Julian can stay front and center and make perfectly mediocre synth rock by himself, thank you very much.
It took me five or six listens of "Phrazes for the Young" to stop thinking "What the fuck is this shit?" and hear the good along with the bad. A Julian Casablancas solo record couldn't have turned out any other way, could it? The Strokes have been peeling out in the Cars since at least "12:51," and "First Impressions of Earth" tracks like "Razorblade" and "Heart in a Cage" pulled that sound out of the garage for an experimental spin.
So what's the difference between the Strokes' electronica and Julian's? I'm reminded of Robert Downey, Jr. critiquing Ben Stiller's Simple Jack in "Tropic Thunder": instead of tickling the keys for a flourish here, a nuance there, "Phrazes for the Young" goes full synth-pop retard. Opener "Out of the Blue" lets you know exactly what you're in for: Casio bubbles surfacing on a cool country punk riff that Julian ruins with whiny lyrics -- "I know I'm going to hell in a leather jacket/Least I'll be in another world while you're pissin' on my casket" -- right before the guitars vanish in a wave of synthesizers and guitars that sound like synthesizers and God knows what else. A funky bass line peeks in and out of "Left & Right in the Dark" like it's trying and failing to connect Julian's childhood memories of running through a parking lot with musings on urban decay and travels to India, and then the chorus kicks in and Julian's lost in the gadgets again. One of "First Impressions'" many overlooked joys was hearing Casablancas for essentially the first time, without the extra layer of walkie talkie grime coating his voice. Your typical pop vacuum chamber dulls the jagged grumble in Julian's lower register on the few tracks where he's not struggling to keep his chin above the synths, like the vaguely gospel sigh "4 Cords of the Apocalypse," which, after some Brian May curlicues, reduces that 2AM wail to just another high-pitched thing on another over-produced chorus. It says a lot about "Phrazes" that its best track, the soaring, crypic, celeb-in-a-box ballad "Glass," is the least-adorned, and it still starts out with incongruous bird chirps. I guess sometimes you go retard and hit "Forrest Gump."
See, I LIKED that song, and I still think it hopped off the short bus. Every time you find something enjoyable on "Phrazes" a laptop charges around the corner and electrocutes it. Rarely does Julian know when to leave well enough, or OK enough, or bad enough alone. Here's his snapshot of 2009 USA on "11th Dimension": "I live on the frozen surface of a fireball/Where cities come together to hate each other in the name of sport." Not bad enough for you? OK, here's a cheesy organ droning over bongo drums. Still not bad enough? OK, how about a cocktease of minor-chord Strokes menace before the organs star covering the original NES "Castlevania" soundtrack? Is that bong water in the background of whatever the hell those strings and woodwinds and Pro Tools are doing on the beginning of "Ludlow St."? Is the nervy street poet who once captured the mock triumphs of an entire desperate, bored, bar-hopping generation with five simple words -- "Meet me in the bathroom" -- really lecturing me on how the plight of Native Americans circa 1624 relates to yuppies gentrifying a Puerto Rican neighborhood in contemporary New York?
Let's excerpt another lyric at random: "6 AM now you're in Hollywood." So's Fab. So's Nikolai. Gotta be hard to be desperate, bored, and pent-up when you're a photogenic rock god in the sun-soaked land of starlets and supermodels. What's there to be anxious about? Look at that sunset! Look at those boobs! Look at what my Mac can do!