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January 13, 2006

Third Impressions unearth no Strokes of genius

The first CD from the Strokes, Is This It, simply put, was it. The Strokes were immediately heralded as saviors of rock and roll. Room On Fire extinguished any thoughts of a so-called sophomore slump. But the landing of the Strokes’ third album, First Impressions of Earth, has been far from smooth.

The sound that made the Strokes the Strokes was grounded in the basics: attitude and simplicity. The second album was by no means as good as the first, but it was a product of the same musical place. For their third album, it appears the band was so focused on reinvention that they forgot what defined them.

Changing is an important, if not necessary, step in the growth of any group, but this does not imply that one must suffer a severe musical loss in the process. Both Dylan and the Beatles changed and reinvented without losing themselves. Although “Like a Rolling Stone” was a change from the acoustic folk sound of songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” it came from the same place. Bob Dylan could not be pigeonholed, and thus reinvented his sound. The Strokes cannot claim the same.

Of the 14 tracks on First Impressions of Earth, only two are positive progressions from the previous two albums: “You Only Live Once” and “Razorblade.” Those two are undoubtedly from the Strokes. Tracks like “Killing Lies” and “Ask Me Anything” are clearly beyond the band’s comfort zone—the latter a poor attempt at capturing the originality of Radiohead.

The Strokes do not seem aware of their own musical limitations, and by exceeding them, they only emphasize what they lack. Many of the songs do not work and are almost a chore to listen to. The talent and originality are there. We know that the Strokes have the ability to reinvent themselves for the better. They just haven’t done it yet.

The band most often compared to the Strokes is another New York band, through and through: the Velvet Underground. A band with a similar attitude that succeeded when it came to its third album, the Velvet Underground redefined its sound with songs like “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Candy Says,” “What Goes On,” and “Jesus.” While their third, self-titled album meant reinvention and redefinition, it possessed both lyrical and musical continuity.

The flawed First Impressions of Earth has nothing of the sort. Is This It is one of the best rock and roll albums of the last 20 years, and what its successor lacked in originality, it more than made up in continuity. The third album runs the musical gamut and suffers from a clear and obvious lack of focus. One has to only listen to the first 10 seconds of each track to draw such a conclusion. And while lead singer Julian Casablancas has never been one to spout lyrical profundities, the lyrics of First Impressions of Earth come across as trite.

Maybe the mistakes of the third album will help to focus the Strokes for a make-or-break fourth effort. Every band is allowed to have an album that fails to meet expectations, but this is only tolerated for so long.

Perhaps only artists possessing boundless creativity can attain true reinvention. No matter what, the Strokes are not Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or the Velvet Underground. Their third album makes that fairly apparent. A band needs a purpose, and there is nothing like a failed album to light a fire under them. Hopefully, First Impressions of Earth will do this for the Strokes.