Julian Casablancas - Phrazes For The Young

Impressive solo debut
Julian Casablancas
With The Strokes next album ‘underway’ (don’t hold your breath), mainman Julian Casablancas has channelled his talents in to a solo debut.

Whatever the circumstances of its inception, the prospect of a band’s singer stepping out of their safety zone to go it alone in the studio can sometimes be a daunting one, for listener if not the performer. Of course, Casablancas is not ‘just’ the singer of The Strokes but the creative driving force, and although underused on Strokes records, a talented multi instrumentalist, which certainly gives confidence on a musical level.

‘Phrazes For The Young’ was completed in the last twelve months with producer Jason Leder in New York, L.A. and Nebraska and heralds a whole itinerary of activity with US and UK dates announced in the near future.

‘Out Of The Blue’ starts the album in jaunty style, despite the lyrics being a litany of anger turning to bitterness, hope turning to sadness and anger turning to vengeance. Its chugging Strokes-esque guitars sparkle come the chorus, even if they drown out the vocal, while a low key synth brings further distraction as the track unfolds with a synth/guitar arpeggio bringing the song to conclusion, sounding like an amped-up riff from The Strokes’ ‘12:51’.

‘Left & Right In The Dark’ reinforces the synth presence with an upfront opening riff giving way to echoing guitar chops and another great chorus, again with a high register distorted guitar/synth chimes calling the shots over the drum machine-supplied rhythm. The ’80s vintage textures of the synthesizers recall Ultravox’s ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ for a split second. The track ends with an extended fade out before it blasts back at full volume for a ‘hey, pay attention’ surprise (or maybe the engineer’s hand slipped).

Previously aired ‘11th Dimension’, which sent the Internet into a tizzy on its sneak release, kicks off with a pseudo New Order bassline and is surprising in its immediacy - sure, Julian is as snotty nosed as ever (hey it’s why we love him) but, and this is a theme here, the fizzing, crackling fun inherent in ‘11th Dimension’ is a joy to hear (once more).

The ‘amusingly’ titled ‘4 Chords Of The Apocalypse’ is the first of the real curio; it’s an earnest soul ballad, the kind of thing you might’ve heard Otis Redding deliver. That is until the chorus goes a bit fantastical with trilling keyboards and subtle but heavily distorted guitar adding some welly. Things subtly mutate as the song winds up with those fizzy synths appearing as the keyboard gets a bit Jools Holland (just a bit, thankfully) and Julian takes it home.

Next up, another song curious in its orientation. An eerie synth wash opens ‘Ludlow St.’ before it takes a right turn into country with acoustic guitar and banjo while a stuttering rhythm box adds contrast. This is a guy from the streets of New Yoik remember. The complexity of the track builds as it progresses amidst such notable lyrics as “I surrendered my ego / You fed yours / All my fantasies died when you said yours”.

Casablancas brings out the artillery on the leaden intro of ‘River Of Brakelights’. Its doom laden beginning breaks into the irresistible “Getting the hang of it... Burning is everything” pre-chorus chant as the hi-hats get a work out, then it’s straight into the extra value length chorus and a Beck-esque ‘Two Turntables And A Microphone’ interjection. After all that fun, the brutal verse descends again, but hey, you can’t have the light without the dark. Thankfully the “Getting the hang of it” pre-chorus and chorus return before long with everything turned up a notch as Casablancas’ voice does that great strangulated thing adding the cherry on the top.

The penultimate track, ‘Glass’, opens with a double tracked, off-kilter synthesised whistle as see-sawing strings overwhelm the vocal as it, again, struggles to be heard. A shame especially when JC briefly breaks out a falsetto. The drum machine handclap adds to the ’80s roller disco ‘A Fifth Of Beethoven’ on downers vibe. A neo-classical tweedly-dee guitar solo ups the po-faced mood as sleigh bells add little Christmas cheer.

Album closer ‘Tourist’ offers up booming drums and a circular, vaguely Eastern sounding guitar twang before the hi-hat changes the rhythm and wrong foots the listener. A cascading, whining synth adds interest as Julian declares that he “Feels like a tourist in the big city”. Three quarters of the way through the song, just as you feel you have the measure of the track, Casablancas drops in some horns (real this time), bringing a muted, but celebratory climax to affairs.

With only the album opener, ‘Out Of The Blue’ recalling his other band, and as The Strokes’ main songwriter and tactician, there would be no shame in things being Strokes-like, but Casablancas has pushed the boat out on creativity here. From the unexpected soul shading of ‘4 Chords Of The Apocalypse’ and the country swing of ‘Ludlow St.’, he is clearly enjoying the stylistic freedom afforded him here. While his vocal is unfortunately buried in places, his louche NY punk persona is intact and battles the sonic patchwork throughout.

With his bandmates setting the bar admirably high in their own projects, Casablancas can hold his head high when he next heads into the studio with his colleagues, as ‘Phrazes For The Young’ easily holds its own amongst not only his bandmates’ albums, but The Strokes output proper.

8/10

Words by Nick Annan


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