This is my favorite band in the entire world, and what follows is from the bottom of my heart…
Backgound: The Strokes reinvigorated rock at the turn of the century. There would be no garage rock revival without them. Their first album, Is This It, is the best rock album of the last decade. These are facts and will not be stated again, so let’s move on…
When the band’s second record, Room on Fire, came out in 2003, most people praised it as being just about as good as their first. The big critique that came with this was that the two LPs sounded too similar in nature, which was relatively true. Only in retrospect can we now see that this was the perfect thing for the band to do. The formula of ITI was still new at the time, and there was enough change to constitute a fresh feel to the way the albums played together. The track listing was again on the nose, and the band’s popularity only grew from that point onward. On their third album, First Impressions of Earth, the band tried a bunch of things to get away from making the same record again, but got lost in the process. This resulted in an album that didn’t quite live up to its legacy. The point of this post is to see what went wrong and what could have been done differently.
With the second record came a lot of touring. The band moved from playing clubs and small venues to playing stadiums and eventually festivals. David Byrne of Talking Heads fame recently did a TED talk about how bands write songs based on where they’ll be playing them, so this might have been a factor when they went about making First Impressions of Earth. Since The Strokes were playing in these larger places, they needed songs to fill them whole. The sounds on FIoE fit the description to a tee. Really though, this ended up being only part of the problem with the eventual third album.
The main problems with the FIoE are obvious after the first listen. While all the songs are individually still great, they do not hold together as consistently as an album should. The tracklisting is terrible, and the most immediate songs are the first four. This leaves the listener with no incentive to listen on, thoughn they need to in order to get to the great tracks later (re: “Red Light”). Some of the songs are clunky, for while the band succeeded with branching out from their winning formula, they struggled to find a good replacement.
Additionally, while the Strokes have often been critiqued on their lyrics, their biggest fans (myself included) have always loved them. Still, when more than one song is about not having anything to say, it becomes a sign that ideas were running short. That leads to the biggest problem, as there wouldn’t have been a lack of ideas if the band didn’t stretch out the album to 52 minutes instead of the perfect 37. Well, that said, what were the Strokes actually trying to do with this album?
Probable Goals of the Third Album:
1) Make songs that fit into the arenas the band would be playing for the next twenty years (and hopefully forever).
2) Break the formula of their other songs and make a different sounding album that everyone loves and cherishes..
3) Make sure the album has enough consistent music for new fans and old to love.
Okay, those are some lofty, but attainable goals at first glance (of earth?), but when you combine all three, there was no way that all of them could be accomplished on one album. No band could do that, not even ones considered to be the best. For example, The Beatles themselves made a gradual transition with Rubber Soul and Revolver before stumbling into Sgt. Pepper. If they had made that after Help!, the public would have cried blasphemy. Nevertheless, the Strokes went for it anyway.
Casablancas relinquished some of his songwriting power and started collaborating with the rest of the band; the results being that everybody’s influences emerged on record instead of just one focused songwriter. This may or may not have been one of a few small blunders that ended up adding to a less desirable whole. I, for one, personally believe that one vision is better than multiple when making music. Without the focused goal of a main songwriter, a song will usually come out disjointed and bloated, with people trying to force their ideas in. Even Lennon/McCartney usually stuck to filling in each other’s gaps rather than sharing songs entirely. They realized they couldn’t step on one another, because that would diminish the final product.
Another mistake the Strokes made was getting rid of producer Gordon Raphael. Going with David Kahne meant a bigger sounding album, but why would the band drift from the guy who got them their trademark sound? He was the one who walked out on the sessions, probably foreseeing the errors of the band and their new producer. In the end, the album would have been better with him included. That said, let’s take an intense song by song look at the album…
Song By Song:
“You Only Live Once” could probably be called the quintessential Strokes song and is one of the best on this album. It is the perfect opener, and follows the other two records with its questioning of normal societal standards. It does this while talking about Julian’s favorite subjects, sunshine and relationship resolving. This is the only song that nothing could be changed about. It has the perfect length and a sound comparable to the first two albums, but also insight into the bands progression. It’s truly a great tune.
“Juicebox” is a great song as well, but should not have been the second track. Just like “New York City Cops” and “The Way It Is” before it, the song is much harder (actually way harder) and should have been on the second half of the album, and probably Track 9 to keep with the trend. The length is again perfect, and this is one of the few times on FIoE where the new Strokes habit of having the solo in the dead center of the song completely works to its benefit.
“Heart In a Cage” is again as fantastic as the two previous songs. It is almost as hard as “Juicebox,” but manages to keep it closer to the basic Strokes formula. It has a bunch of instrumental breaks that carry the song well and make it so there isn’t a ridiculously catchy solo needed anywhere. This is an experiment on structure that works great and should be applauded for it’s daring. The length is once again spot on, and everything about the song works well together. (Side note: the video is awesome, go watch it.)
“Razorblade” would have ended the greatest EP ever made by any band ever in the history of ever. It didn’t happen though, and this so-far perfect third record starts to lose it after this track. As for the song itself, it is once again fantastic. Dropping the tempo, the song is musically similar to “Between Love & Hate,” and like that song, grows much more pleasurable over time. Its pretty much the same half song twice in a row, and actually does the trick perfectly. The verse guitar is great, and the intro doubles as a makeshift solo to start the second round of the song. The length is stellar, and the actual solo toward the end is classic Strokes. Now is where things start dropping off a bit.
(takes deep breath)
“On the Other Side” is the first misstep of the album. Sure, it sounds cool at first and you might think I’m crazy, but there are obvious flaws that appear when you’ve literally listened to it 100 times. The crashes sound weird, and the chorus, while good, tends to be a bit too mundane to carry itself well. The song could end at 2:45 instead of 4:40, though the third verse’s melody is great enough to justify it. This track would have been much better suited as a b-side and could have been released as a backing to an “I’ll Try Anything Once” single that never happened.
“Vision of Division” could have been so good, it saddens me. It opens with a killer solo, then jumps into a sexy verse with its own prechorus at the end, followed by a cool metal-y prechorus, then another buildup prechorus that miraculously works and leads into a memorable yelling chorus. Then it drops the ball. While the next “Paint It Black” homage solo is cool, it really should have been saved for live performances (maybe an extended single?) and doesn’t match the rest of the songs’ character. Cutting that out, while skipping the added intro after it, would have dropped a solid minute from the bloated 4:20 it clocks in at. The outro could stay and the song would stand up much better in the long run. There even could be more tweaking if necessary…
“Ask Me Anything” is an experiment. It is the “I’ll Try Anything Once” that they for some reason left on the album. It is in the dead center of FIoE, and unwillingly splits it into two parts, making the first half noticeably stronger and acting as the tip off with its slow pace and lyrics that the rest of the album will not be as good as what preceded it. The song might have worked as the last track, but really should have been popped out of it’s slot at seven and onto a bonus disc of b-sides the band released after the huge success of the album I’ll ‘create’ later on.
“Electricityscape” is pretty awesome. It is again, completely off formula and still manages to somehow work. The structure has a verse, prechorus, umm— crud I literally can’t figure it out. I just spent ten minutes listening to every part over and over again, and I have no idea why, but for some reason it all magically goes together. All I”ll say is that the length is right on, it could make as a pretty good last track, and it definitely belongs on the album.
“Killing Lies” suffers from being repetitive and having nothing truly special about it. The beat is off kilter and it pretends to be fast even though it crawls. The tom drums are the only thing keeping this song afloat, but it might be the worst track on the album. There, I said it. Still though, it completely alludes to Julian’s solo album, and he should have scrapped this from the third album and saved it for that future project. I imagine that this was one of the songs he looked back on for inspiration when seeing where to go as a solo artist, but for a Strokes song, it just doesn’t work.
“Fear of Sleep” is cool in a weird way. It’s repetitive, but it works, and the buildup is pretty awesome. This also could have been a great last track with the “you’re no fun” line to close the album and leave people waiting for the next. This song also does the “half a song doubled to add length trick” but it works pretty well. Notice this trend of “good last songs,” though. The last song on an album is usually a departure and alludes to where a band could go next. It seems there were five different ways for the band to have taken not just the next album, but even the next song. Lack of a cohesive record is what this leads to, dear reader.
“15 Minutes” is the most interesting song on the album. It completely switches direction halfway through, which is a Strokes first as far as I know. The lyrics are fantastic and insightful, and the slow buildup completely rocks when it breaks through. This is the only song on FIoE that completely justifies its long length of 4:37. The song has freaking double bass for Christ’s sake! I only wish I could understand Julian a bit better, but it’s probably good that I don’t, for it adds to the intrigue of the song and keeps me coming back. If one was being picky, they could end the song at 3:37 and it would totally have the same effect, minus the sick double bass, though.
“Ize of the World” is another great last song, with the whole “being cut off at its climax” thing totally leaving a cliffhanger on the fans. Why its all cluttered with guitar squealing is a mystery, and throws the listener off at the beginning. I never liked this song until recently because of that intro, and only realized how interesting the song was when I accidentally started it in the middle of the verse. While this is another buildup song, it doesn’t flow as well as the two tracks before it. (As a side note, why would they put three songs that build up in a row? You tell me. They could have easily mixed these up with the four best songs at the beginning to have made a much more interesting listen.) As for the rest of this song, it again does the repeated half, but adds a solo in the middle (odd), bloating it up to 4:30 and making me cringe. The solo is good and should have been kept, but they could have skipped the second long-ass verse and just done a quick build to end the song around 3:30 instead. And if they shortened the fist chorus a bit, it would have been a bit more Strokes-esque and kinda like “Someday.” Now that would have been cool…
“Evening Sun” is a very pretty song. It is the “Under Control” of this album and deserves very much so to be included. It’s a spiritual match to “Hawaii Aloha” with it’s awkward progression and topics about the sun and summer. The melody is serene, and the lyrics are excellent. It could be shortened a little, but works perfectly fine at its current length. (Another side note, “Hawaii Aloha” is absolutely one of the band’s simplest, best songs. It is a crime that it wasn’t on this album. I will change that below.)
“Red Light” is a fantastic song and a personal favorite. It takes the feel and tone of “12:51” and adds some addictive noodling over a never ending catchy melody that invites the listener back again and again. It really is a very well done song, and maintains the Strokes sound while branching out a tad as well. This track did actually close the album well, and reminded the listener of what band they were listening to all along…
So there you have it. If you were able to get this far, you actually might be able to listen to the whole album in full at its unbelievably long 52 minutes. Now that that’s over, we can go about rearranging it based on how the songs flow together. I put some time into this and came up with the listing I believe would have worked best for the album. It starts off strong but mid-tempo, picks up around halfway, then drops off to another slow buildup, but this time sounding much more hard-edged and powerful, keeping the listener’s interest throughout. The song lengths add up to around 40 minutes, which accounts for how long it took them to make this record after the last. The fans would have been happy, the album would have sounded less “evil,” and critics would have let them keep their “most important band in the world” title for a few more years. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Strokes Third Album:
Last Impressions of Earth (released in an alternate universe 2006)
1) You Only Live Once
2) Hawaii Aloha
4) Red Light
5) 15 Minutes
6) Vision of Division (the shortened version described above)
7) Evening Sun
8 ) Electricityscape
10) Heart in a Cage
11) Fear of Sleep
The Perfect Followup B-Sides Album (tracklisting is decent, but could be better: released 2007)
1) In Her Prime (recorded professionally)
2) Sagganuts (recorded professionally – why can’t they do this?!!!!)
3) Post Modern Gils (ft. Regina Spektor)
4) Elephant Song (rerecorded)
5) I’ll Try Anything Once
6) On the Other Side
7) Ask Me Anything
8) A Minor 4-4 (recorded professionally)
9) Ize of the World (shortened version described above)
(As for other oddities, one can skip “Rhythm Song,” as its just a lamer “Sagganuts.” “Killing Lies,” as stated, should have been on Julian’s solo outing, and “Unknown Song 1” isn’t very good, so let’s not release that, thanks!)
To help complete your collection, here’s “Hawaii Aloha”as a gift for me taking so much time out of your day.
I firmly believe that if some small things had been changed, the Strokes would have blown up AGAIN and would have released their followup in 2009, followed by a fifth album sometime next year. What a perfect world that would be. Anyway, thanks for reading this ode to my favorite band in the world…