Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Julian Casablancas – Phrazes For The Young

Julian Casablancas’ solo debut is an 8-song, 40-minute collection. On first glance the brevity makes the protracted promotional campaign — its preview trailer, dramatically cut onscreen interview with its lofty claims of trying to harness “the power and seriousness of classical music” while “captur(ing) the catchiness of modern music,” and sanctioned snippet stream — seem oddly out of place. Of course, people are so hungry for new Strokes material, that the pre-release hype’s inevitable. That, and Casablancas shoves so much into Phrazes For The Young, it has enough ideas for three albums twice its size. Unlike the ADD “River Of Breaklights” suggested with its weird arpeggios, breakneck beats and sudden shifts, the collection’s (mostly) tastefully done, things falling more into the realm of the chipper (almost ballpark synthesized) “11th Dimension,” maybe the best song on the collection. We still have lots of dissecting to do, but so far it’s the most interesting of the Strokes members’ solo projects. (Sorry, Nikolai.)

After a few seconds of tinny drum hits and moody synth washes, the album locates a more compelling momentum with “Out Of The Blue”‘s opening lines: “Somewhere along the way my hopefulness turned to sadness / Somewhere along the way my sadness turned to bitterness / somewhere along the way my bitterness turned to anger.” Then we get to vengeance and beyond: “Yes, I know I’m going to hell in a leather jacket / But at least I’ll be in another world while you’re pissing in my casket.” On Phrazes Casablancas mixes that punk attitude with a giddy sense of possibility: “Out Of The Blue” is reminiscent of JC’s day-job band despite the electronics. “Last Night” re-imagined as synth-pop? Not quite, but not entirely wrong.

Most of the songs are close to (or over) 5 minutes and none end up where they begin. “Left & Right In The Dark” layers rolling synth and dub-like guitar splashes with a driving guitar, electronic drums, and Casablancas’s urgently catchy lyrics about urban decay. “4 Chords Of The Apocalypse” opens like a down-and-out ballad with soulful organs before making a John Lennon nod and turning into a psychedelic blues rock ‘n’ synth anthem. They all have a way of doing that — moving with twists and turns and ending on high notes.

The most appealing track — after a few listens — is “Ludlow St.,” a laid-back Dylan-esque ramble which goes back to the Lenape tribe of 1624 to discuss how those “yuppies” continued to “invade” downtown New York. You could argue that Casblancas is three decades late, but there’s more here than by-the-books gentrification in the song’s woozy (and literally boozy) waltz: “Soon we’ll all get pushed out / as soon as I get sober / I remember why I drank it all away.” He also notes: “All my fantasies died when you said yours / I have dangled my pride to forget yours,” etc. We hear about musicians who will haunt it some day, how it’s hard to move along, but that the nightlife rages. It’s about the protagonist’s comfort zone more than it is about the city’s. (Plus it includes a banjo solo and a weird Native America meets ’70s sci-fi intro.) Much of Phrazes has this personal angle: Even amid the galloping darkness of “River Of Brakelights” you get truly moving singing.

Time again, even with all the instruments, it really is that voice that does most of the work: “Glass” has the icy feel of Bat For Lashes’ song of the same title, but this moves into more straightforward anthemics. You wouldn’t be faulted for hearing some Radiohead in the falsetto. The closer “Tourist” has some sort of carnival-meets-Bach vibe: Here, maybe tying into the “Ludlow St.” thing, he “feels like a tourist in the big city,” much like we still feel kinda lost in these songs’ layers.

These are substantial compositions. (They’re a bit reminiscent of Jeremy Enigk’s solo work in their baroque one-man-feeling structures.) We haven’t listened enough to get entirely to the bottom of them, but they are appealing. Of course folks will complain about the general brevity of the collection, but the more you listen to Phrazes For The Young, the more you realize these songs open and expand as they get older. Take your time with it. Hell, considering reports that the guys are currently having a disagreement about the direction of the new collection, this may very well be the most Strokes-esque album you get for a while.

Phrazes For The Young is out 11/3 via Cult/RCA. There’ll be a box set version out 12/18 that’ll include the album on CD and vinyl plus a DVD of Casblancas doing the songs acoustically, a disc of demos/B-Sides, posters, and a 48-page book that contains the man’s signature, etc. No word on the dog.