Good First Impressions
The Strokes Kick Off the Year With a Bang

Happy Aught Six, everyone.

I’m sure history will decide what abbreviated nickname we give this decade, but I like calling it the Aughts. First, it’s delightfully old-mannered, like you should have to be wearing a fedora hat and smoking a pipe just to say it. And you should say it to a guy named Jeeves, if at all possible. “It’s the Aughts, Jeeves.” And secondly, it seems to make people nuts. I don’t know why, but I’m always amused by small things that drive others insane.

So it’s Aught Six. This is the sixth new year’s column I’ve done, and I’m looking back over the archives and noticing that I haven’t yet succumbed to the lame-ass trap of writing one about my new year’s resolutions. In my ongoing attempts to make tm3am as pitiful as possible, in the hopes that you’ll all feel bad for me and send money, I decided to rectify that. I only have one, but here it is:

I resolve to be less judgmental in the coming year.

Now, I’ve told this resolution to a few of my friends already, and each of them has said, independent of the others, something like, “That’s a good resolution for you!” I’m not sure what to say to that, other than “ouch,” but I’m guessing from the reaction I’ve received that this is an area I need to work on. And I may as well start now, with music.

I judge music without hearing it all the time. It’s the only way (besides illegal downloading, which is no good for anyone) that I can still manage to pay my bills – if I were to buy and listen to everything I should, as a critic and as a fan, I would be penniless on the street, forced to sell my iPod for food. So over the years I’ve developed what I call the Third Album Test. The absolute genius of this name will become apparent when I tell you that it’s a test that centers around a band’s third album. Fooking brilliant, wot?

I like to wait until third albums before really making a judgment call on a band, and here’s why. The debut is the record you have your entire life to make – songs you’ve been working on since you were 12 can wind up on the first album, fully formed and crafted. By that very same logic, the follow-up is often a disaster, because you spent your wad on the first shot, and kept nothing back, and instead of your whole life this time, you only have six weeks to come up with something.

At least, that’s the way it often works. Many artists know this pattern already before they launch into their recording careers these days, and they work to avoid it. And still others follow a more organic path, stumbling around on their first record and finding their footing on the second. But it’s most often the case that the third album cements everything. It’s the one where the evolution either takes off or caps, most times, and by the third, I usually know if I’m going to like a band.

Thing is, I’ve been circumventing the Third Album Test for some time now, snapping to judgment early on many well-respected acts. A good example is the Strokes, a band I dismissed 15 seconds after hearing “Last Nite.” In a perfect world, that first time would have also been the last time I heard “Last Nite,” but no – it was rammed into my skull for months, inescapably played on radio and video, and included on mix CDs I received. Was I the only one bored by it?

I naturally did not buy Is This It, the hyped-beyond-belief savior-of-rock first record by the Strokes. I also didn’t buy Room on Fire, the apparently disappointingly similar second album. I argued vociferously with many people who pressed the Strokes on me, lumping them in with the “garage rock” movement and basically denying their existence as best I could. Why? I dunno.

So here’s First Impressions of Earth, the third Strokes album, out this week. Just in time to remind me of both my resolution and my Third Album Test, which I hadn’t planned on doing with this band. Which is just plain judgmental, especially since the reviews for Earth have been pretty smashing, citing perhaps my favorite phrase in the critical lexicon: artistic growth. After a few days of this, I turned to the universe and shouted, “All right, already! Jeez! I’ll buy the stupid Strokes albums!”

So I did. And I listened to them all in a row, with open ears and (hopefully) open mind.

Perhaps it would be best at this point to say what I didn’t like about this band to begin with. I am not a fan of minimalism, which seems to have swept the country like a plague. It’s become some kind of strange virtue to record your album in a weekend, or at least make it sound like you recorded it in a weekend, even if you took three years on it. Any evidence of ambition or labor must go, until what’s left is energy and abandon, no matter how weak the songs are.

“Last Nite” is a pretty weak song. It is, oddly, one of the strongest on Is This It, an album that makes 35 minutes seem like 10 years. The songs are pretty simplistic, and the recording is unbelievably basic. If all you want is a shuffling beat and a thudding guitar, this will do it for you, but memorable moments are few. Singer Julian Casablancas (what a rock ‘n’ roll name…) mopes through the melodic sections and screams through the rest, and he’s not very ear-catching in either mode. I suppose the acclaim centered around the energy present throughout the record, the “real rawk” it proffers, but that’s never been enough for me.

So, strike one.

Room on Fire is better, not even close to the holding action I was expecting. It’s shorter than the already-EP-length debut, but the songs are sharper, especially the first few. The band still sticks to one-four-five progressions a little too often, but they stretch their melodies here and there, and let the lead guitar do its thing better. They’re still boring, though – where many hear reckless, explosive energy, I hear sameness and repetition and an overall soup of blah.

Which would be strike two. As Room on Fire drew to a close, ironically with a song called “I Can’t Win,” I reconsidered this whole resolution thing. Perhaps judgmental is where it’s at. Maybe, at this point in my musical life, I really can tell within one song whether or not a band will ever be worth my time. Maybe I’ve been right all along. And maybe I just wasted $36 on thudding, too-cool-for-school rawk music that I’ll never listen to again.

And then I fired up First Impressions of Earth.

The album’s texture was the first thing that caught me by surprise. While the other two Strokes albums sound like they were recorded from seven miles away, Earth is big, clear and up-front. The change is remarkable. They no longer sound like they’re trying to fake poverty, or pretending that it’s 1972 and their crippled reel-to-reel machine is all they have. It’s warmer and more inviting, which some will see as a sellout, but which I consider a real improvement.

But wait – that’s not the only giant leap here. The songs are light years better. Listen to “Juicebox,” the new single – that thing’s a monster, incorporating some of Franz Ferdinand’s melodic tricks and a monolithic bass groove. The chorus is massive, the band sounds like they’re on fire – the energy on this one makes Is This It sound like a moldering corpse. “Juicebox” isn’t the only good song here, but it is probably the best one, and the surest sign that the Strokes want to move forward.

The rest of Earth is similarly ambitious. The album is nearly twice as long as its predecessor, and many of its songs top four minutes. (For the Strokes, four minutes is “Stairway to Heaven.”) Of those, very few don’t deserve the longer run times. “15 Minutes” is the most egregious, with “Killing Lies” right behind – those tunes drag down the middle of what otherwise is a pretty enjoyable little record. Beyond that, though, the production is just swell, effectively countering boredom at every turn with lead guitar breaks and neat little moments.

The most surprising song here is “Ask Me Anything,” which sounds like something Stephin Merritt would come up with. It is the only Strokes song without any guitars at all – it’s all string sounds and Casablancas’ tenor. The lyrics are typically lame, with “I got nothing to give, got no reason to live,” and “I got nothing to hide, wish I wasn’t so shy” being representative examples. But the song is interesting, especially in contrast. It’s followed by “Electricityscape,” which is not only a great pun but a well-arranged piece of melody.

Still, nothing here approaches the slap-you-upside-the-head force of “Juicebox.” The band picks up steam near the end, with “Ize of the World” and the shambling “Evening Sun,” but it can’t regain the power of its opening shots. But hell, at least they tried. First Impressions of Earth is several large steps in the right direction for the Strokes, and I hope they keep traveling down this road.

I’m also glad I got over my hang-up and heard it. We’ll see how long this non-judgmental thing lasts, but given how successful the Third Album Test was this time, I can’t see not doing it again, and giving more chances to other bands I’d written off. I might even start to take some of Dr. Tony Shore’s recommendations seriously. You never know. Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on how my journey to a less obnoxious me is coming along.

Next week, I catch up with some of 2005’s forgotten sons. And daughters.

See you in line Tuesday morning.