Diff’rent Strokes

The StrokesFirst Impressions of EarthRCA RecordsFour and a half out of five stars

Perennial 20-something garage rock wunderkinds, The Strokes, are all grown up?

Wait, what?

It’s true-with poise and proficiency on 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, Julian Casablancas and Co. (the New York street rats that helped return rock to its slutty, speedy, sordid splendor of yore) show themselves to be more than just the tight-jean wearing, girlfriend-stealing inebriates that released two of the best post-millennium records, Is This It? and Room on Fire.

But before you go sounding off to all your hipster friends about how “The Strokes have lost their edge; The Strokes have sold out,” hear this:

The Strokes’ adult third album is not only an indication of a band that has become increasingly comfortable in its iconic shoes, but it is also THE BEST STROKES ALBUM YET MADE, PERIOD.

I say that with no reservation: While Is This It? introduced the world to a sneering bunch of ’70s-influenced rock brats with an ear for sarcasm and nonchalance, and the nearly identical follow-up, Room on Fire, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the band could shred eardrums with fire-licking guitar riffs and heart-pounding drum movements, First Impressions is the first time The Strokes have truly struck out into new territory since the band hit the ground running in 2002.

And it’s damn exciting.

Blending the heavy, pushy, locomotive club sound that has become known as “That Strokes Noise” with a newfound appreciation for simple and slow numbers, First Impressions takes the best of what was old and mixes it with all that is new. The result is an album nearly equal in length to both of The Strokes previous efforts combined and greater than either in terms of confidence and musical control.

The Strokes have always had a knack for opening their albums with more-than-solid cuts, but to say that the first four tracks on First Impressions are better than average would be the understatement of the new year.

“You Only Live Once” kicks things off with a playful, clean guitar riff that segues into a stuttering drum beat and a breathy vocal hook (“Shake me down/ Shack me up!” Casablancas demands), while “Juicebox,” the album’s first single, is a return to loud-and-proud for a band known to break amps as easily as hearts. “Juicebox” has, hands down, the beefiest bass line in years, and the energy it generates with its opening chords only builds as the song goes on, culminating with Casablancas’ sneer, “Waiting for some action/ Waiting for some action/ Oh, but why don’t you come over here?/ Why won’t you come over here?/ We’ve got a city to love/?Oh, you’re so cold/ You’re so cold/ You’re so cold!”

What’s better, whereas far too many other albums seem content to set a standard of perfection early on, only to let it fizzle to mediocrity later, The Strokes’ First Impressions sets the bar high and only continues to raise it. “The Heart Beats in its Cage” and “Razorblade” are both self-conscious and riotous, while tracks like “Killing Lies,” “Electricityscape” and “Ask Me Anything” show that The Strokes are not exclusively fire and fury. They slow down the pace with some of the best idiot-contemplative lyrics since “I want to be your dog!” Just try and tell me the line “Don’t be a coconut/ God is trying to talk to you,” off of “Ask Me” is not the coooooolest thing you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t even have to make sense, that’s how cool it is!

In the end, The Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth succeeds most at confounding the expectations of critics who expected the band to burn out and fade into obscurity somewhere underneath an ocean of booze and a skyline of pills, parties and petty infighting. Instead, The Strokes cleaned up (Casablancas reportedly quit drinking, got married and feels better than ever), stayed together and showed everyone that this is one snide rock outfit not content to let a well-enough legacy alone.

If First Impressions is really just that, expect great, great things from The Strokes in the near future.

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