Four years ago, the Strokes’ debut album Is This It rocked the world, prompting critics everywhere to declare them the band destined to save rock ‘n’ roll. They rode the wave of fame until 2003 when they released the hotly anticipated Room on Fire to a mixed chorus of cheers and ho hums. While many of their fans lauded the effort as a fine compliment to Is This It with tighter production and deeper song structures, some dismissed the album as too similar to its predecessor. People wanted the Strokes to change the face of modern music and instead they went home and did the same thing as before. Two and a half years later, it is 2006 and they are not about to make that same mistake again.
First Impressions of Earth seems a misguided attempt to answer critics of Room on Fire and respond to the call to be rock’s musical salvation. Room on Fire’s condemned lack of experimentation is more than made up for on First Impressions. Unfortunately, the experiments the band tries work against its natural strengths. The detached rebellious attitude of the band is convoluted by the replacement of fuzzy vocals with hyper clear overproduction, which may correlate with their decision to bring Sugar Ray’s producer David Kahne on board. Hearing the first awkward echo effect in the opening track “You Only Live Once,” I cannot help but cringe. It is like the skinny kid who starts wearing muscle tees; not only does the shirt not fit, it is downright embarrassing to look at. Other identity problems appear as well. On “Juicebox,” lead singer Julian Casablancas tries far too hard to be Mick Jagger, even repeating the line, “You’re so cold” several times. At different points in the album, Casablancas’ voice shifts between whiny, drunk, wistful and even country-tinged, while always remaining lyrically vapid. The musicianship on the album is fine, but thematically disparate. Too many in-song and album-spanning mood transitions hinder the musical flow and cripple the album’s chance at establishing any sense of identity.
It is not all bad news. About half the songs are actually quite listenable, but none of them justify drudging through the trough of experimental horse feed that composes the rest of the album. If you crave albums with slick production by bands struggling with their residual self-image, you may find something to take out of First Impressions of Earth. Otherwise, stick with the more enjoyable older albums.