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Julian Casablancas
Phrazes For The Young Ben Hewitt , November 9th, 2009 12:24

It his been eight years since The Strokes, with their carefully rumpled hair and retro chic, arrived on these shores to inject some much needed panache into a drab, dreary and jumper-clad UK music scene. Sure, their razor-sharp image couldn't completely paper over the paucity of their tunes, but with the bland mugs of Starsailor and Travis adorning the cover of the NME, the their debut Is This It seemed a hell of a lot more attractive. Since the initial hype, though, they've never been able to kick on and justify that huge first wave of excitement. A succession of solid but patchy albums followed, with neither Room On Fire nor First Impressions Of Earth matching the effortless flair of their debut, while the band dynamic has seemingly splintered amidst tales of studio bickering and endless solo projects. It was no shock, then, when singer and chief songwriter Julian Casablancas revealed he was working on his own album Phrazes for the Young. With every member of the group bar guitarist Nick Valensi pursuing their own independent musical interests, the only surprise is that it took him so long.

The initial worry with Phrazes for the Young is that it will be a lazy Strokes re-hash — a fear that opening track 'Out Of The Blue' does little to dispel with its taut metal-wire guitar riff and teasing lyrical references to the band's fall from grace ("Somewhere along the way my hopefulness turned to sadness / Somewhere along the way my sadness turned to bitterness" and "I'm going to hell in a leather jacket", anyone?). It proves to be a misnomer, though, for much that follows. Rather than re-tread old ground, Casablancas embarks on a starts with throbbing 70s disco, takes a detour via downtown 60s soul, and culminates in tear-jerking balladry. Is This It volume II this certainly is not.

Refusing to serve up another slice of garage rock is laudable. The alternatives offered in its absence, however, are less impressive. The cherry-picking of disparate genres imbues Phrazes for the Young with a distinctly cabaret hue; an off-putting novelty vibe akin to Robbie Williams 'going swing' on Swing When You're Winning or 'electro' on Rudebox. Casablancas plunders different styles, superficially skimming them for their most obvious tropes like a magpie without ever delving into their core. '4 Chords Of The Apocalypse', for example, nails all the requisite criteria needed to replicate the classic soul sound, with its smoky organ and blues-drenched guitar, but despite the plush production, it's still inescapably hollow. Casablancas tries to muster as much underground jazz bar gravitas into his voice as possible, but he can't stop his crooning vocals of "I'll take you shopping / I'll take you dancing too" erring on the side of parody.

The same can be said for the boozy waltz of 'Ludlow Street'. A whiskey-soaked ditty which sees Casablancas bemoan how "Everything seems to go wrong when I start drinking" over a backdrop of plonking finger-picking. It's spot on as a country and western pastiche, but one suspects that merely spoofing other genres wasn't the limit to his ambitions. However much he tries to convince otherwise, he doesn't have the inebriated croak of Shane McGowan — just as the Casablancas of '4 Chords...' doesn't have the groove of John Lee Hooker. It's a problem which re-occurs with the neutered balladry of 'Glass' as he desperately strives for the epic, but despite the huge groundswell of sky-scraping guitars, it all sounds too calculated. By the time he howls "Don't wanna break all that heart", any emotion in the song has been choked to death by its own grandiose ambitions.

Elsewhere, though, there are reminders of Casablancas' aptitude for scuzzy melody, and tantalising glimpses of the direction Phrazes… should have taken. The claustrophobic electro-riff of 'Left & Right In The Dark' sounds like a distant cousin of '12:51', while '11th Dimension' is fantastically hammy disco number which takes the refrain of David Bowie's 'Rebel Rebel' and mangles it through a warped Wurlitzer. 'River Of Brakelights', meanwhile, is a dark and menacing beast, as Casablancas taps into his hedonistic side and declares, with a throat-tearing growl, "We're in for a late night". It's at these junctures, when the fuzzy garage rock of The Strokes is taken to its natural progression and given a New Wave style makeover reminiscent of Blondie, that Casablancas shows why a solid solo album is definitely within his grasp - but while the pastiches and parodies hold sway, Phrazes for the Young is more of a vanity than solo project.