Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gut Feeling: Julian Casablancas - Phrazes for the Young

Gut Feeling is a new kind of post I'll be doing as an outlet for all the "holy shitting" that tends to happen once an album leaks. This was designed to make up for my decision to pretty much quit buying records unless absolutely necessary. This first one is unnecessarily long, the rest will be more concise, promise.

Julian Casablancas – Phrazes for the Young
RCA, 2009

I never gave a shit about the Strokes when they were huge. Is This It? Dropped a few months after I'd become steeped in punk rock and I saw nothing to this but hype. I saw a bunch of spoiled New Yorker with heiress-esque names that got to make a rock and roll record because their daddies had given them trust funds large enough to allow for them to not have jobs and be a full time band in their early twenties. The problem is, even though they represented that sort of pretentious cool that I hated, their music was really, really fucking good. I won't say it changed the face of rock and roll like everyone said it would, but it was fun, and when one of their singles would happen upon MTV at 4AM or would come on the radio I wouldn't change the station. Though I never listened to a single Strokes record all the way through until last night, there are four amazing singles that I recall quite fondly and still sound totally fresh today.

I don't know why I shunned the Strokes. Perhaps it was the anti-DIY aspects they flaunted. A bunch of guys in faux-faded leather jackets with cool haircuts (ok, I'll admit, I was just jealous. Seriously, those guys had the five best haircuts in rock and roll of the 00s) and rich daddies were from a different world than Minor Threat and Black Flag and the Descendents. Like movie stars who are only famous because their parents were famous, I questioned their credibility. Are they legitimately good or are they only good because they were privileged and achieved fame because they could afford it? And it took me a long time to figure out that that does not matter at all. Good is good. Which brings me to the new Julian Casablancas record, which caught me off guard and has become one of my favorite records of the year.

While I'm not keen to listen to a spoiled rock star bitch about his problems or to claim that his record combines classical composition with pop songwriting, the record itself is a deftly crafted message of alienation. There's a “lonely at the top” vibe to it, but mostly Casablancas, for the first time, seems like a normal person. In addition to that, he proved that he knows how to write a fucking great song or two. While I've never had much respect for lead singers, I only recently learned that Casablancas was the chief songwriter of the Strokes, which I construe as “the guy who put the songs together and told the other guys to do this and that.” I might be wrong, but he has more in common with Bob Pollard than I ever imagined. Although, there was that one video where the Strokes are playing Family Feud with Guided by Voices, that only became totally fucking amazing in the past couple of years.

The reviews for this record seem to be pretty mixed, but are mostly middling. The words “indulgent” and “ambitious” show up a lot, but mostly people just complain about little things because Julian Casablancas didn't save rock and roll like he was supposed to. There's lots of complaining about his voice sounding too smooth, and I wonder if they expected him to hang onto his gritty delivery forever. He's older now, in his thirties and understands that rock and roll is pretty much a young man's game. Phrazes for the Young is a step back and a redeployment of resources.

Opener, “Out of the Blue,” is exactly what a lead track on a debut solo record should be. It's different from his previous work, it's gripping, and it's catchy as all hell. It also sets up the album thematically, which waffles between ideas of isolation and love and sometimes touches at both on the same time. The first three songs are pretty much perfect. Structurally they work like my favorite pop songs. That is, they hit with a great verse and get to the chorus without an unnecessary run through of the verse. They're so tightly packed there's really no room for chaff. “Left and Right in the Dark” is a perfect track two. It takes it down a notch, and develops a slick little groove with the bass line and echoed guitar to get me up to the excellent chorus. “11th Dimension,” the album's first single, took a while to grow on me but I can see why he picked it to represent everyone's first glance at this record. It kind of sums it up. The synths are in overdrive, almost dancey and totally fucking new wave and that chorus, holy shit.

The first three songs could be their own little mini-EP, as they essentially represent the album as a whole. Well, at least thematically. “Out of the Blue” is for the jaded from the jaded, and maybe that's why it's my favorite song on the record. Because since graduating I've watched my hopefulness turn to sadness, my sadness to bitterness, my bitterness to anger, and my anger to vengeance which manifested itself in silent curses against the KU football team (it's working!) when I couldn't pick up my diploma due to some unpaid parking tickets I got and still haven't been able to afford to pay. From Julian's point of view it seems like a big old fuck you to everyone. EVERYONE. “Yes I know I'm going to hell in a leather jacket/ At least I'll be in another world while you're pissing on my casket.” A story of hopefulness to madness and yet it also happens to be a love song once the chorus hits, effectively asking someone why they stick around despite your great flaws, which seems like something I do on a daily basis.

“Left and Right in the Dark” could be about environmentalism given its references to urban decay and people turning the world back and slowing everything down, but it's probably about the same stuff “Tourist” is about. That is, not feeling at home anywhere because your home isn't there anymore. Times have changed, everything has changed and you just move on and wander about. “11th Dimension” is the letting go. Not so much the giving in, but an understanding that in the long run, pettiness and little things do not ever really matter unless you make them matter. “Forgive them even if they are not sorry,” he sings. It's probably the best line on the record, and the best thing anyone could glean from this.

Of the 8 songs on the record, only 2 really miss the mark. The faux-country “Ludlow St,” a dedication to the once former coolest street in NYC, meanders never quite goes anywhere and fails to realize that he's probably part of the reason that the history of this street has been erased. It's hard to take this guy seriously when he talks about “yuppies invading,” you know? The track it precedes, “River of Brakelights,” just kind of recycles on itself for five minutes, making for one of the more tragic middle-sections that often plague potentially great records. “River of Brakelights,” though, is almost always skipped.

He makes up for it with the next pair of tracks, though, which almost make up for the two songs before it. “Glass” is the best example of Casablanca's theorized classical meets pop concept. If there's one thing I've never faulted Casablancas for is his gift for vocal lines. His ability to warp his voice around words and melodies is pretty uncanny, and here it really shines. The verse are a little serpentine (in a good way) but once he hits that chorus and really fucking croons, I melt a little bit. Like a 16 year old girl with a teen idol crush. It's Casablancas meets maturity. The classical part makes sense with the guitar solo in the middle. I don't know anything about classical music, or how I would describe it, so I'll just be as broad as possible and say it sounds like Mozart played on an effects heavy electric guitar designed to sound almost like a synthesizer. Most importantly, the song is affecting. While the Strokes always just seemed to be about fun, and while that was their best attribute and what made them such a great band (I see now in retrospect).

The closer, “Tourist,” has been in heavy rotation for the past few days. At first I was bothered. “Oh, Mr. New York feels like a tourist now! How the tables have turned!” I scoffed. But after more and more listens through the record Julian Casablancas became more than a leather jacket, a cool haircut, and heroin chic. I separated him from the comment someone brought back from CMJ in 2005, bragging that he'd done coke with the Strokes. I separated Julian Casablancas from fashion, and I think that's what he did for himself on this record, even though he sounded like a dick in the interview I watched on youtube. But he feels like he doesn't belong anywhere in this world and I believe him. It sounds like his dealing with the Strokes seemingly forthcoming demise. Five friends got together and started a band and now, from what I've read, they don't even really talk and their band has basically become work. They all have their own solo projects going on and from Casablancas' perspective, he's spent so long doing this one thing he has nowhere to go and there you go. It's thematic!

I've been listening to this record for the better part of a couple of weeks now. It's to the point where Jenny groans whenever I drive us anywhere or when I listen to it while cooking dinner. There's something comforting about it, some sort of connection that seems rare with a lot of music now. I like a lot of the music that's been coming out, a lot of groundbreaking shit, whatever, but finding something that I click with or identify with or that makes me feel something has been rough. I saw Dirty Projectors tonight and felt absolutely nothing. Sure, I was watching some incredibly capable people playing some incredibly unique music but at the end of the day I'm not going to listen to Dirty Projectors to make me feel better. It's just been what I've wanted to hear every time I don't know what to listen to. Sure it's got its flaws, but it still feels like a statement. Yes, it is overeager and Casablancas sounds like he's trying to cram every idea he has into 8 songs but there's something wonderful about that too. That unbridled excitement. That doing everything you want your way and having control when control is so hard to have these days. Effectively, the message of the record is the making of the record: Sometimes you absolutely need to do what you want and do it your way. Fuck what anybody else thinks.




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