REVIEW: Julian Casablancas – Phrazes for the Young
Zach Hart Monday, November 02, 2009
Julian Casablancas. The name is enough, isn’t it? With the Strokes, he has tied two sides of alternative music together – the side that carries the punch of the underground and the side with the pop sensibilities of the mainstream. It’s an odd marriage that would seemingly lead to the loss of that oh-so crucial “indie cred”, but somehow worked out in the end. Well, kind of. With the Strokes on a notably long hiatus, a new album stuck in limbo, and tensions between the bandmates high, (Casablancas said in the November issue of Spin Magazine that being in a band was the best way to ruin a friendship) it’s understandable for anyone to need an escape from reality.
For Julian Casablancas, an escape came with going solo. When the conception of Phrazes For The Young was first announced, Casablancas played it up. The showy album preview was something to marvel over. It was highly sensationalized. If you’d been living under a rock and had no idea who Julian Casablancas was, you’d still be excited. The only thing that could put a damper on the news was one question: “Can Casablancas live up to the hype?”
The product of Casablancas’ vacation from the Strokes is an album that is ever much as inventive as it’s creatively spelled title. It’s not inventive in that, “Oh, look at you doing whatever you can to set yourself apart” way. It’s more of a, “God, you’re a lot more talented than you’ve been letting on” kind of way. We knew that much Casablancas’ talent laid in his ability to write amazingly catchy pop songs. The lead single from Phrazes for the Young, “11th Dimension”, further displayed that point. However, if you expected an entire record of happy synth blips, cowbell, and lyrics from a second-rate inspirational speaker, you were wrong.
Sure, there are a few light moments. The opening track, “Out Of The Blue” is an upbeat cut with flourishing guitar distortion, layers of drum machines, and some fiery lyrics. Apparently, Julian’s “going to hell in a leather jacket” and he tauntingly declares that “at least I’ll be in another world while you’re pissing on my casket.” Yeah. He’s still got the attitude. A few handclaps and random outbursts of rapping later (see “Left & Right In The Dark”), everything goes a bit serious.
Casablancas puts his raspy, soulful voice to use in “Four Chords of the Apocalypse”, a track with power choruses that are bound to get a cry of “hallelujah” out of someone. “Ludlow St.” takes an unexpected turn from eerie tribal drums to acoustic guitar and honky-tonk keyboards. Julian puts on a faux Southern accent, and makes country synth pop look appealing for perhaps the first time ever. As he groans about hipsters invading and Indians being forced from their homes, he increasingly sounds like the token old man screaming, “Get off my lawn!” The intense energy builds throughout Phrazes to reach its peak with “River Of Brakelights”. The song moodily grinds and pulses along with prog rock inspired rhythms and a synth breakdown that’s half Mario Bros. and half…well, Julian Casablancas. All goes relatively calm again with the crowning jewel of Phrazes for the Young, “Glass”. The song sways like a lullaby and is embellished with shimmering synth and a beautifully cascading guitar solo. Julian’s vocals reach a striking falsetto that pulls the track along into a heartbreaking end.
The album is impressive, but the true indication of success comes with the answer to a simple question. Does Julian triumph over the hype machine that artists of his stature often are slaughtered by? Yes. He makes the standard verse-chorus song form sound fresh. He seamlessly blends together musical components into his own unique style; the futuristic atmosphere that he crafts still manages to be warm and familiar. His raspy vocals perfectly counterbalance the shiny, precise production. As Julian gets increasingly personal with his lyrical content - the disappointments of childhood and the struggles of love are often touched on - something interesting happens. There is something extra added to his singing that isn’t heard on Strokes records; his robotic voice subtly evokes an array of emotions. It turns out that there is a human under that façade of rock star royalty. Julian is a human, yes, and an understatedly talented one at that. This album finally gives him a chance to shine all on his own. Everything is much better on vacation, isn’t it?