This solo album from the frontman of the Strokes was only a matter of time. After all, Julian Casablancas’ band mates have all dabbled; Albert Hammond Jr (rhythm guitar) with well-received solo albums, Fab Moretti (drums) with Little Joy, Nikolai Fraiture (bass) with Nickel Eye. Casablancas’ main songwriting partner in the band, Nick Valensi (lead guitar), has played with Devendra Banhart, among others. Casablancas has, until now, mostly stuck to his day job with the Strokes, but you wonder if Phrazes For The Young signals the first concrete sign that the Strokes could be falling apart.

After all, there has been a generally muted reaction to both their follow-ups (the watered down Room On Fire in 2003 and the desperately bland First Impressions Of Earth in 2005) since 2001’s landscape-changing début Is This It. The fact that the band have been working on new material all year without any word of being near completion doesn’t quell the rumours that the end could be nigh for the New Yorkers. A news posting on the band’s website in July stated that the band were in the studio with an early 2010 release mooted. But with the Strokes’ reputation for album delays, fans won’t be holding their breath next year.

It’s interesting that Casablancas is the last to try his hand away from the band. He’s always been the star of the show; effusively handsome, undoubtedly cool, a style and musical icon for an entire generation. Perhaps he previously thought he didn’t need the possibility of a solo album flop dulling his reputation as one of the best frontmen in modern alternative rock music.

It’s easy to forget just how influential and important the Strokes were. Pop into your iTunes and list your record collection by year. What else do you have accompanying Is This It in 2001’s ranks? Lowlights from mine include Snow Patrol, Semisonic, Travis and Feeder. Music was shit in 2001 (apart from Elbow, Idlewild, I Am Kloot and so on, but they all came later for me). Then the Strokes came along with their haircuts and their leather jackets and their carefree attitude and reinvented alternative rock music forever.

Phrazes For The Young is less boundary-smashing, but it’s still a cracking record and a very definite change of sound from the Strokes. The main difference is that Casablancas has embraced the synth. All right, so an album without a synth is a rarity these days, but it’s still a thrill to hear Casablancas’ trademark casual drawl backed by some angry, industrial sounding synth action. In fact, anything other than a guitar accompanying Casablancas is a welcome change.

At just eight tracks long there’s no filler with every song contributing to the sound of the album. And they’re nearly all absolute belters. River Of Brakelights is a particular standout. It’s beautifully paced, taking the listener on a thrilling ride, with Casablancas even managing to muster a vocal that sounds almost interested throughout. At over five minutes it’s one of the longest tracks on PFTY, although only one track dips in anywhere near to four minutes.

11th Dimension is that song and it’s stunning. A bah-bah-bah organ-like synth line that will permeate your brain in seconds despite its disarming simplicity opens the song over some groovy beats, with Casablancas’ vocals noticeably higher in the mix and more to the forefront than ever before. That riff comes back to thud through your body at choice moments throughout the track while Casablancas gives his most melodic vocal yet. It’s the high watermark of the album’s general excellence, but the sheen of quality rarely dulls throughout the rest of the LP. Casablancas does a worrying impression of a male Scarlett Johansson on the slightly plodding 4 Chords Of The Apocalypse but it’s a rare dull spot and even then, fairground noodling guitars followed by a Brian May-style solo liven it up.

Whereas the Strokes are all too prone of throwing in big dumb choruses to please the masses (and no doubt the States’ rampant college radio output), PFTY barely contains a sniff of one. Without wanting to sound like a total muso cock, Casablancas almost totally rejects traditional song structure. Instead, the album wafts along under its own creative steam without the engine boost of a singalong bit, a WOO-WAH bit, dainty ‘aren’t they pretty’ strings, moronic dancefloor rhythms, sexist lyrics or anything else you might find in a typical chart album.

It’s hard to analyse Phrazes For The Young without bringing in the context of the Strokes. The fact is that the former trend-setters have been on a continuous downward spiral virtually since their inception. Casablancas has made his break for freedom here. This isn’t Thom Yorke testing out some ideas that weren’t suitable for his main band. It’s not Ben Gibbard wanting to explore a new avenue of electronica. This is Casablancas creating a portfolio piece, saying “look, this is what I can do. I don’t need the Strokes”. The album doesn’t even miss Nick Valensi’s bitingly mainstream and memorable guitar lines, instead preferring to let other, often more exotic instruments come to the fore.

Perhaps the Strokes will come back refreshed and re-energised from their break with new ideas and an exciting new direction. But this writer can’t see it. A splintering of the group looks to be coming quickly, perhaps even before a fourth album makes it into existence, and PFTY is a perfectly timed reminder of Casablancas’ potent ability as a singer-songwriter. A long and fruitful career away from the Strokes, seemingly, beckons.
8/10

This review was written for TMM.

Advertisements