On the morning after Dec. 31, somewhere in a grimy East Village dive’s bathroom – the kind with indie rock stickers adorning the inside of the urinals – any of the five Strokes might lay in a corner, clutching an empty Red Stripe bottle, celebrating the highly anticipated release of First Impressions of Earth with a broken pair of 2006 eye glasses crooked across their face.

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Totally the hippest arboretum EVER. (Courtesy of RCA)

Like that swelling New Year’s Day hangover, Impressions hits hard and without remorse. It feels like an eternity since fans and the press were assured that the boys were here to stay with 2003’s Room On Fire, and Impressions yearns to further cement Julian Casablancas and company at the top of the dignified young graduating class of vintage-rock revivalists. Sure, what The Strokes bring to the table is authentic, but they sure as hell aren’t perfect.

Impressions is no traditional Strokes album. The songs are meatier, the fast tunes are more urgent, the slow tunes more relaxed, the lyrics more telling. The album sprawls to a whopping 53 minutes. That’s 17 more minutes of angular rock than Is This It? and 21 more than the methodical Room On Fire. This is a Strokes album, so the lack of the wine-’em-and-dine-’em, quick-punch attitude that made their first two efforts so easy and downright fun to listen to is a shock. The Strokes work hard here to change. Of course, evolution isn’t always pleasant.

You can’t really blame them though for trying to mix things up. Take the down-tempo balladry of “Ask Me Anything.” It is, by far, the slowest Strokes tune to date, but it reveals a new side of Casablancas. He’s finally comfortable enough to shamelessly channel his inner Lou Reed pensiveness: “I would fight to survive / I got nothin’ to hide / Wish I wasn’t so shy.”

He’s immortalized Iggy Pop in the past, but now he does it more than ever, with city-scape love affairs and coarse yelling in the first single. Wary Strokes fanatics may have been scared by the resemblance of “Juicebox” to a Jet song when it leaked, but Nikolai Fraiture’s raunchy bass line grows until you’re screaming right along. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s manic hi hat hits blaze the verses with a new fury. The instrumental innovation, however, doesn’t make up for the album’s shortcomings.

The back half is what slows down and ultimately stops Impressions from adding another near-perfect imprint in the Strokes’ impressive, young catalog. The final four tunes come off as rehashed older material – see the “Evening Sun” vocal inflection as an old bridge or the “Red Light” Cars-esque guitars like a photocopy of “12:51.” “Ize of the World,” the album’s weakest track, is just plain bloated and boring.

Suppose these four tracks were made B-sides to true gems like “Razorblade” or the stunning album opener “You Only Live Once.” If that were the case, Impressions might be a classic. There’s no doubting guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. can duel with perfectly slighted rhythm. Valensi is shaping up to be one of rock’s most detectable and contemporary players. His screaming breakdown in “Heart in a Cage” or hummable shredding on “Razorblade” are integral to what ultimately makes Strokes songs so damn addictive.

First Impressions of Earth was tracked by a strategic leak of songs earlier in the year. But only the choice cuts from the record made it out. Mere coincidence?

Their instruments may speak like incarnations of rock gods of yore and their public persona may offer a masturbatory image of contemporary stardom, but Impressions ultimately shows that The Strokes do have human flaws. Bring in 2006 with this album and mind those mature imperfections. First impressions aren’t everything.

 

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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