It’s tricky being first. The Strokes almost singlehandedly launched the current alt-rock revival in 2001 with a cocky sound and attitude, catchy songs, and canny early PR (a strategy not lost on fellow New York risers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) that together came off like a revelation. Suddenly there was a flood of young bands out to save rock, all with cocky sounds, attitudes, songs, and PR, and none of them — except maybe the White Stripes — seemingly equipped to go the full distance.
That included the Strokes, whose charming Is This It was followed by 2003’s underwhelming Room on Fire and who soon seemed like a hype case destined for a slot on a Rhino Best of the ’00s comp and a small cadre of devotees who’d been deflowered by the band’s debut. Yet First Impressions of Earth, an ambitious, frequently thrilling make-or-break third outing, refuses to accept that fate lying down. It may not earn them a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vitrine. But it’s primo modern rock, with some of the most energized musings on world-weariness since the Clash’s ”I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”
Everything about Impressions raises the bar, from the art-gallery graphic design to the sound, which suggests the Strokes are made for high-gloss production. Mostly gone is Gordon Raphael’s glinting lo-fi sonic approach, which became the New York City ragamuffins’ signature. Instead, new producer David Kahne (Sugar Ray, the Bangles) and mixer Andy Wallace (Nirvana’s Nevermind) sharpen the focus, and everyone steps up his game.
Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. push their easy interplay into unexplored territory here, mutating lines with new-wave guitar effects and flamboyant runs that are more hair metal than alt-rock, while steering clear of blatant wankery. And singer-songwriter Julian Casablancas officially ditches the Rudy Vallee megaphone effect from Is This It and really unfurls his voice. It’s a great instrument: a sloshing, frothy baritone you want to take home and sober up with. Here it echoes urban crooners from Ric Ocasek (”You Only Live Once”) to Shane MacGowan (”15 Minutes”) to Stephin Merritt (”Ask Me Anything”) to Barry Manilow (”Razorblade,” which cheekily nicks part of the chorus to ”Mandy”). And Casablancas often rouses himself to actual hollers — ”Visions of Division,” ”Fear of Sleep,” ”Ize of the World” — a good thing for a rocker, especially for one as enraptured by ennui as this one.
Impressions lacks the seemingly tossed-off magic of Is This It. But maybe that’s to be expected, since this set does what a third (if not a second) record should do: doctor the script and prove artists are bigger than the niche they’ve been slotted in. If it feels more like a showcase of new approaches and ideas than of perfectly turned songs, it’s still a hot ride.